Oliver Stone and Time Warner Entertainment scored a major victory Monday when a Louisiana judge dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit against them.
The case involves a filing by the family of a convenience store clerk. Suit contended the movie “Natural Born Killers” spurred two bandits to shoot and cripple the clerk. The clerk later died of cancer.
In a ruling from the bench following an hour of oral argument, state court Judge Robert H. Morrison rejected all the plaintiffs’ claims. He found that after two years of discovery, plaintiffs had uncovered no evidence that Stone, who directed and co-wrote the pic, or Warner Bros., which distributed it, intended to incite violence, much less imminent violence.
The case, which has attracted much interest since its inception, began when the estate of Patsy Byers filed a wrongful death action. Byers, a convenience store clerk, was shot by Sarah Edmondson on March 8, 1995, during a robbery while her accomplice, Benjamin Darrus, waited in a car. The pair claimed they had watched Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” before the shooting. Byers was left a quadriplegic.
“The lawyers told me this is a huge victory, but I don’t think so,” Stone told Daily Variety. “I sympathize with the Byers family, but it’s Sarah Edmondson who shot Patsy Byers. It’s depressing that a suit that should have been thrown out on the first pass could result in such a waste of time, energy and money. We’ve created a new legal hell where everyone is entitled and no one is responsible.”
In 1996, Time Warner and Stone were added as defendants on the theory that they knew or should have known that the film would cause people to commit crimes.
In their court papers Stone and Warners had pointed out that Edmondson did not shoot Byers until three days after she saw “Natural Born Killers” and that she did so at the behest of her boyfriend.
In an affidavit filed with the motion, Stone described the film about a boy and girl on a killing spree as a satire made with the purpose of encouraging “the audience to think critically about society’s contradictory relationship to violence.”
First Amendment issues
On Monday, the judge also rejected arguments that the film was obscene and not entitled to First Amendment protection.
Underscoring the importance of the case was the fact that former solicitor general and well-known constitutional scholar Walter Dellinger handled the oral argument for Warners and Stone.
Following the hearing, which took place in Amite, La., about 60 miles from New Orleans, Dellinger told Daily Variety: “I think this is a very important decision for the First Amendment because it frees artists from having their creative work inhibited by the fear of having to go to trial in burdensome lawsuits. The judge recognized that the basic rule of the First Amendment is that you may not punish expression because of the content of the message.”
Stone’s attorney David Wood added: “Litigation of this type chills creative activity. The sad thing is that it has taken five years and a huge amount of resources to get this vindication.”
Both Dellinger and Wood expressed sympathy for the Byers family, while at the same time pointing out that responsibility is with the perpetrators of the crime, not the filmmakers.
“Today’s decision is a timely affirmation of the rule of law that we don’t hold moviemakers and songwriters and authors liable for the criminal misdeeds of people who don’t understand what they’re watching, hearing or reading, and we are gratified by today’s result,” said Robert Schwartz, who also represents Warners.
Attorneys for plaintiffs declined to comment.
While Monday’s ruling represents a milestone in the long-running case, it is unlikely that it is over, unless the plaintiffs forgo their right to appeal.
The same Louisiana judge originally dismissed the claims against Stone and the studios, but a Louisiana appellate court reversed, holding that plaintiffs could try to prove through discovery whether the filmmakers intended to incite unlawful behavior.
The Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Stone and Warner Bros., as did the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1999.
In January, at the close of two years of discovery during which the plaintiffs took only Stone’s deposition, Stone and Warner Bros. moved for summary judgment.