For Howard K. Stern, One Legal Odyssey Ends as Another Begins

stern and smith.jpg
Stern and Smith
This whole arrest-on-felony-drug-charges thing came along just when Howard K. Stern's legal life had finally calmed. The attorney ex-boyfriend of Anna Nicole Smith filed a lawsuit in Fort Lauderdale's U.S. District Court in April 2007 against mega-millionaire attorney, John O'Quinn, accusing the lawyer of libel for statements O'Quinn made in national television appearances.

That case was less tabloid-friendly than Stern's other legal battle -- for custody of Danielynn, the heir to Smith's fortune, in which the biological father, Larry Birkhead prevailed. (Sorry, did I just give you a Larry Seidlin flashback?) But the Fort Lauderdale case against O'Quinn was, for Stern, a risky one. For one, Stern easily meets the legal standard of a "public figure," which means that in a libel suit he must prove that O'Quinn acted with malice -- he knew of Stern's innocence, but ignored it so that he could malign Stern.

For another, by filing suit Stern gave O'Quinn legal license to subpoena documents and witnesses who just might support statements he made implicating Stern in Smith's death, as well as that of Anna Nicole Smith's son Daniel, who died of a drug overdose in 2006. Those findings could potentially fuel a criminal case against Stern.

It is not yet clear what, if any, role the discovery in the Fort Lauderdale case may have played in the recently filed criminal case against Stern and two doctors who allegedly used illegal means to provide Smith with prescription drugs.

A view of the docket of Stern v. O'Quinn indicates that Stern's side made frequent requests -- most of which were granted by the judge -- to seal discovery documents and sworn statements. That may have protected them from the media, but those are fair game for criminal investigators.

The motion for summary judgment filed by O'Quinn begins with the rather comical assertion that Stern was so thoroughly loathed and villainized that he didn't have a reputation left to be ruined. O'Quinn attorney Robert Klein wrote:
If the purpose of defamation law is to guard against harm to a person's good name, a person without a good name has nothing for the law of defamation to protect.
And:
According to this defense, certain plaintiffs, (like Howard K. Stern), have reputations so diminished at the time of publication of the allegedly defamatory material that no falsehood could make it worse.
And finally:
Stern was portrayed as a villain; a murderer; a drug enabler; drug pusher; and in the most despicable terms that one could ever imagine used to describe a human being.
A master of the understatement, this attorney. Another key to Stern's case was to prove damages -- that O'Quinn's statements made it hard for Stern to make a living. Take it away Klein:
A review of the record before this court clearly revals that Stern wasn't gainfully employed as an attorney BEFORE O'Quinn utterd his statements. The transcript of the Broward County proceedings demonstrates that Howard K. Stern had but one client -- Anna Nicole Smith. For the years 2002 up until the time of the Broward County proceedings, Smith's income was at most $12,500. In most years, he had no income. Anna Nicole Smith gave him money to live; paid his rent, bought his food and bought his clothing.
Klein also points to testimony by Birkhead indicating that Stern brought drugs to Smith's hospital room after she gave birth to Danielynn, as well as statements by Smith's personal assistant that Stern was "an enabler."
In spite of the fact that Stern takes issue with what he calls the "implied accusations of murder" the fact remains that Stern could, in fact, be charged under several Florida criminal statutes. Stern could, in fact, face felony murder charges as a result of his "enabler" role.
Klein lists sections of Florida statutes that make it "a felony to deliver or possess with intent to deliver controlled substances such as chloral hydrate and methadone."
In short, Stern has not and can not establish that O'Quinn's statements were false or defamatory where Florida law provides that STern could, thus, be charged with Murder.
The libel suit against O'Quinn was settled and then dismissed with prejudice on December 1. Filings indicate that both sides were barred from discussing the terms of that settlement.

Stern also sued MSNBC talk show host Rita Cosby, demanding $10 million in damages based on her book, Blonde Ambition, about the case. That litigation is ongoing.

For a more in-depth look at the Fort Lauderdale case, check out this feature story I wrote in October 2007.

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