The Work

April 22, 2009 3:44 PM

SmithDehn Beats Back Libel Suit for Da Ali G Show, Channel 4

Posted by Julie Triedman

Picture 1 Two years after a woman filed a libel action against Sasha Baron Cohen and Da Ali G Show, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge threw out the suit Tuesday.

The plaintiff, who sued as "Jane Doe," demanded $800,000 in damages on a claim that Cohen used her name in a comedy interview that his character Ali G conducted with the writer Gore Vidal. In the interview, Ali G asked Vidal why there is any point in amending the U.S. Constitution, since he (Ali G) had a girlfriend (the plaintiff) who was constantly "amending herself" but to no avail.

Lawyers for the show and its U.S. distributor, Channel 4, said the decision was only the second of its kind in the United States, the first being a New York decision in favor of Saturday Night Live. In his decision, the judge, Terry Friedman, said the program was obviously a spoof and that no reasonable person could have believed the allegedly damaging statements.

Behind the scenes, the defense team at nine-lawyer SmithDehn and its 26-lawyer Indian arm, SDD Global Solutions, had other reasons to celebrate. For perhaps the first time in a U.S. court case, the heavy lifting of deposition preparations and briefing in what became a motion-heavy case was performed in a time zone 12 hours away, inside the firm's Mysore, India office. There, led by Padmavathi Shantamurthy, a team of lawyers bill out at between $30-$90 an hour. The role of the U.S. lawyers,firm co-founder Russell Smith and his colleague Michael Cleaver, was confined to editing briefs and court appearances.

When it was dismissed, the case had already gone through a full round of discovery, and the plaintiff had appealed for a new round. Smith credits his firm's Indian arm with allowing his client to put up a vigorous defense. "This was a case that would never have been litigated," says Smith. "India made it possible." The work that the Indian office did "would have been done by [U.S.] associates at many times the hourly rates," he says.

This case is the first big case in which SDD Global has taken a large role in a U.S. litigation, Smith says. Five years ago, as The American Lawyer reported in June 2007, Smith took a sabbatical from his busy media practice to go to Mysore to study yoga. After many visits there, he says, he realized that the Indian lawyer talent pool was both deep and highly qualified--and much cheaper--than U.S.-side lawyers of comparable training. In 2006, he launched SDD Global.

Smith will likely have plenty of new work to send his Indian team: Cohen, the maker of the runaway comic hit Borat, has tapped the firm again as lead production and claims counsel for his new film, Bruno, due out in July. Borat resulted in 27 claims and ten suits, Smith notes; and "Bruno makes Borat look like The Sound of Music," Smith says.

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