Earlier this month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Fahey heard oral argument on videogame maker Activision Blizzard, Inc.’s motion to strike the complaint filed by former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Noriega’s absurd lawsuit, in which he brings claims for violations of his right of publicity, unfair competition, and unfair business practices, arises out of Activision’s depiction of him in the popular videogame Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Like its Call of Duty predecessors, Black Ops II is a realistic role-playing game in which players assume the role of American soldiers on various missions. The primary goal of Black Ops II is to capture a fictional drug and arms trafficker named Raul Menendez. Noriega is an ancillary character in the game, appearing in only two of Black Ops II’s eleven missions.
In the lawsuit, Noriega curiously objects to the game’s portrayal of him as a “an antagonist,” “the culprit of numerous fictional heinous crimes,” and “a kidnapper, murderer and enemy of the state.” And although he did not bring a claim for defamation (perhaps because he is currently in prison, among other things), Noriega’s ridiculous accusations reminded me of the rarely-applied libel-proof plaintiff doctrine.
The libel-proof plaintiff doctrine recognizes that “a plaintiff’s reputation with respect to a specific subject may be so badly tarnished that he cannot be further injured by allegedly false statements on that subject.” Guccione v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., 800 F.2d 298, 303 (2d Cir. 1986). Courts have recognized that “[c]riminal convictions with attendant publicity may make an individual libel proof.”Wynberg v. Nat’l Enquirer, Inc., 564 F. Supp. 924, 928 (C.D. Cal. 1982) (citing Ray v. Time, Inc., 452 F. Supp. 618, 622 (W.D.Tenn. 1976), aff’d., 582 F.2d 1280 (6th Cir.1977)).
In Cerasani v. Sony Corp. the Southern District of New York held that mobster John “Boobie” Cerasani, a convicted racketeer, Mafia associate, bank robber, and drug dealer with a reputation for committing acts of brutality, was libel-proof as a matter of law with respect to the alleged depiction of his participation in certain violent acts, including the Mafia murders, in the film Donnie Brasco. 991 F. Supp. 343, 354 (S.D.N.Y. 1998).
In Wynberg v. National Enquirer, Inc., the Central District of California held that plaintiff Henry Wynberg was libel-proof with respect to the National Enquirer’s statements concerning Wynberg’s alleged financial exploitation of late screen icon Elizabeth Taylor. 564 F. Supp. at 928. Among other things, the court noted that, in light of Wynberg’s five criminal convictions, which involved bribery, prostitution, grand theft, and fraud, “it [was] beyond dispute that Plaintiff’s reputation for his treatment of women and his general reputation for integrity, truth, honesty, and fair dealing in personal and business matters is bad.” Id. at 928. In Lutfi v. Spears, however, the California Court of Appeal refused to find that Britney Spears’ former manager, Sam Lufti, was libel-proof, because, among other things, Lutfi’s “brief notoriety [did] not compare with the years of negative publicity described in Wynbergand Guccione.” 2010 WL 4723437, at *8 (Cal. App. Unpub. 2010).
While courts have cautioned that “the libel-proof plaintiff doctrine is to be applied with caution, since few plaintiffs will have so bad a reputation that they are not entitled to obtain redress for defamatory statements” (see Guccione, 800 F.2d at 303), a California court in this case likely would have thrown caution to the wind had Noriega brought a defamation claim. In addition to his general reputation as a morally-corrupt and violent dictator, Noriega’s resume includes convictions for murder, drug trafficking, money laundering, and racketeering. If anyone should be libel-proof with respect to accusations of violence, it’s him.