Wednesday, May 14, 2008

DEA Agents Claim ‘American Gangster’ Defamed Them

U.S.D.C. SD New York 08-CV-00401

Louis Diaz; Gregory Korniloff; Jack Toal v. NBC Universal Inc.

Three retired Drug Enforcement Administration agents have filed a $50 million libel lawsuit against NBC Universal, claiming they were falsely portrayed as criminals in the movie “American Gangster,” which grossed more than $123 million.

Released in November 2007, the film depicts the rise and fall of real-life black gangster Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington. The movie is set in the 1970s, when Lucas smuggled heroin from Vietnam in the coffins of dead soldiers and was eventually arrested by New Jersey cop Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe. Lucas then becomes an informant and helps Roberts convict several corrupt DEA agents.

Brief follow-ups at the end of the movie state that Lucas’ collaboration with Roberts “led to the convictions of three-quarters of New York City’s Drug Enforcement Agency.”

This claim is patently false, according to plaintiffs Louis Diaz, Gregory Korniloff and Jack Toal. They filed suit on behalf of roughly 400 DEA agents, alleging that the movie is riddled with misrepresentations and that no agents were ever arrested in connection with Lucas’ drug conviction.

“With this utterly false and defamatory statement the defendant has ruined and impugned the reputations of these honest and courageous public servants in the eyes of millions of people,” the lawsuit states.

Plaintiffs claim it was the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the DEA’s investigations that led to the arrest of Lucas, and that Roberts was “involved in a secondary prosecution of Lucas in New Jersey.”

A scene in the movie shows corrupt DEA agents entering Lucas’ residence after his arrest, shooting his dog and making off with a stash of cash they find buried under the dog’s kennel. Korniloff, who was present during the 1975 raid, claims the record shows that the agents had searched the house legally and seized $585,000.

Shortly after the film’s release, Korniloff’s lawyer wrote to Universal demanding that the studio remove the follow-up text from the film. But the studio’s senior vice president for litigation wrote back that nothing in the film could “reasonably be construed to defame or otherwise harm your client,” noting that the film was a “fictionalized work” that did not deal with the federal investigation of Lucas.Plaintiffs seek damages and an injunction prohibiting NBC Universal from continuing to show “American Gangster” in its present form, with the offending text.

Causes of action: Libel per se; intentional infliction of emotional distress; negligent infliction of emotional distress; injunction

Filing counsel: Dominic Amorosa (New York); Michael Carey (New York)