CITY HALL — The Santa Monica Daily Press finds itself fending off a $20 million lawsuit filed by a disgruntled homeless man who took offense to an Associated Press article that ran in the paper in early August.
Phil Sparks, who put his address down as the OPCC Access Center for homeless individuals, is suing the Daily Press for publishing the wire service article that said singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow had taken out a temporary restraining order against Sparks.
The article relied on court documents that said Crow issued a sworn statement saying she was fearful of Sparks because he claimed, in “profane online tirades,” that she stole money from him and broke into his house.
Film producer Harvey Weinstein also got a restraining order against Sparks.
Sparks came to the Daily Press office twice to complain about the article, frightening staff.
On Oct. 10, he filed the lawsuit, which was served on Tuesday. In the suit, he alleges that the article was libelous and that it hurt his reputation.
“At $20 million, I question the validity of the lawsuit and I question the stability of Mr. Sparks, on the basis of the restraining orders granted for Ms. Crow and (Harvey) Weinstein,” Daily Press publisher Ross Furukawa said.
Still, the Daily Press takes all such lawsuits very seriously, Furukawa said.
It is possible to sue a newspaper for an article it did not produce, but it can be tricky, said Jim Ewert, general counsel with the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association.
In this case, the Associated Press article relied on court documents, which are public documents. Public records can be used without fear of lawsuit even if the information in them is incorrect, so long as it isn’t taken out of context for the story, Ewert said.
Newspapers also have an option called the “anti-SLAPP” motion. SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” It forces the plaintiff to show what kind of evidence they have to proceed with their claim.
If they can’t show that they’re likely to prevail, the court is required to dismiss the lawsuit and the plaintiff is faced with all of the court costs and attorney fees for themselves and the defendant.
That can get pricey.
“Unfortunately, there are many people who have a lack of understanding in this area of the law, and for a couple hundred bucks can file just about anything based on a delusional menu of facts,” Ewert said.
The Daily Press reached out to Sparks by e-mail, but he did not respond by presstime. A phone number provided on court documents rang to the OPCC Access Center. John Maceri, CEO of OPCC, said Sparks registered for services in June, was seen twice and never returned.