U.S. News

04.22.14

Will Naming And Shaming Prove to be a Winning Strategy For Bryan Singer's Accuser?

Jeff Herman, lawyer for Michael Egan, the young man who has accused Bryan Singer of sexual assault, has filed suit against three other Hollywood executives. But could Herman be damaging his client’s case, naming and shaming the accused in front of the cameras?

Nothing in Hollywood reverberates like a sex scandal; still more when it involves a big-name star or director. Throw in homosexuality, pool parties with nudity and lashings of alcohol and possibly drugs, and the suggestion of coercive, underage sex, and the circling media and legal vultures increase exponentially in number. When X-Men director Bryan Singer was named as the defendant in a federal civil lawsuit for sexually abusing a then-17-year-old boy, the accusation was met with widespread shock and confusion.

The introduction to this case was incredibly odd and unlike any civil case before it. The accuser, Michael Egan, and his attorney, Jeff Herman, held a press conference in Beverly Hills where the world was told that Singer had violently and repeatedly raped and abused Egan while simultaneously making promises to greatly improve his acting career. What Egan and his attorney described in the lawsuit is far beyond any classic casting couch situation. The filing is filled with graphic descriptions of heinous and horrific behavior. Singer and his legal representatives have denied all claims, calling them defamatory and “without merit.”

Egan’s lawyer is employing an incredibly unconventional legal strategy. It’s a naming and shaming method that is as sensational as it can get. This case would have certainly found itself at the center of the media’s spotlight eventually, but calling a press conference in the swankiest part of Los Angeles certainly makes a very deliberate statement. And because the only thing more public than one Beverly Hills press conference is two, Egan and his lawyer returned to the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel this week to name three additional defendants.

In separate federal civil lawsuits TV executive Garth Ancier, former Disney TV president David Neuman and Broadway producer Gary Goddard are also accused of participating in a sex ring and sexually abusing Egan. The new lawsuits allege that the three men were part of the same Hollywood sex ring that allegedly involved Singer. Herman says Egan was sexually abused by all three men at a home in Encino, Calif., and in Hawaii, and that force was used. The suit against Goddard includes an allegation of abuse when Egan was 15. During the high-profile media event, Egan’s mother had a dramatic emotional moment where she broke down into tears.

This child sex abuse case has strong parallels to the most high-profile child sex abuse case of all time, the civil suit against Michael Jackson. Even the attorney representing the accuser in the Jackson trial did less legal grandstanding and media baiting than we are seeing in the Singer case. In the Jackson case we were introduced to the civil suit only after a very public criminal investigation was already underway and created a necessiity for the civil suit to be disclosed. Typically a civil suit is quietly executed and only becomes highly publicized as depositions and trial approaches. The privacy in the early stages is normally revered by both sides to protect the integrity of the process.

Herman has taken such an unprecedented approach in an effort to “get in front” of the media bias that can form against anyone bringing accusations against a popular figure. While most people didn’t know Bryan Singer by name, they certainly knew and loved his movies, which could have created unwarranted support for the accused director. This naming and shaming strategy could completely backfire, making the accuser look more interested in fame and media attention than seeking justice in its most proper forum, a court of law. The public can be resistant, and even resentful, to ploys that seem too aggressive in getting them on their client’s “side.” It can easily turn into the ultimate publicity stunt. Our multi-media society does demand some reasonable strategy when dealing with the public, but the method taken by Egan’s attorneys seems contrived, which will play poorly to his client’s credibility in front of a jury.

“The public can be resistant, and even resentful, to ploys that seem too aggressive in getting them on their client’s ‘side.’ It can easily turn into the ultimate publicity stunt.”

Speaking of credibility, this case will rely almost solely on the credibility of Egan versus that of Singer. There are several apparent challenges to Egan’s credibility, starting with the suspension of his lawyer by the Florida State Bar for conduct involving dishonesty. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Herman was suspended in 2009 for a term of 18 months due to his investments in a company that was adverse to his client’s interest. The Bar determined his failure to inform his client was both dishonest and deceitful. While Herman will not directly testify during the Singer trial, he is responsible for presenting the facts of the case to the judge and jury in a light most favorable to his client. Therefore, Egan’s credibility is extrinsically linked to that of his attorney’s. Thus Herman’s documented dishonesty could prove harmful for Egan. 

Other problems that could plague Egan’s chances of prevailing in court are the significant lapse of time and potential lack of corroborating evidence. Because the alleged abuse took place almost 15 years ago there will be very little physical evidence and any eyewitness testimony will be compromised by the extensive time lapse. The most helpful evidence Egan can hope for is additional victims coming from the shadows and accusing Singer of the same behavior and citing a very similar modus operandi. The cumulative effect of several young men claiming the same thing would be the best chance of bolstering Egan’s credibility. Absent that type of compelling evidence is not to say that a verdict against Singer will be impossible, but the burden will certainly be a heavy one for Egan and his team to carry.

Bryan Singer’s lawyer, Marty Singer (no relation), has already started a very aggressive defense strategy to discredit Egan’s claims. Marty Singer immediately responded to the initial lawsuit by denying all allegations and threatening to file a counter-lawsuit against Egan and his lawyer for malicious prosecution and defamation. This strong response is typical and expected in a claim as high-profile and egregious as this one. Additionally, we can expect Singer’s legal team to relentlessly attack the credibility of Egan, his lawyers and any additional witnesses that come forward on Egan’s behalf. As the case proceeds to depositions, Singer’s team will point to any inconsistencies in Egan’s story, the fact that Egan filed separate suits for the three additional named attackers, thereby making it easier to get multiple bites at the proverbial apple, and Egan’s lack of professional success and need for money as the motive for the lawsuit. 

This is the very beginning of an incredibly complicated case that has more questions than answers. As the case proceeds there will certainly be changes in legal tactics, evidentiary roadblocks and unpleasant surprises from both sides. Unlike a criminal case that has a strict burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, this case is civil and Egan only has to provide proof by a preponderance of the evidence. Still, based on the limited facts that we know so far, this will be a brutal and exhausting process for all involved.