When HBO debuted Leaving Neverland, it forced a lot of Michael Jackson fans to reckon with the allegations of molestation that have been made against the late singer. On Friday, the network urged an appeals court to throw out litigation brought by Jackson’s estate over the film, according to Variety.
The documentary chronicles allegations of child sex abuse made against Jackson and follows two of his alleged victims in particular.
The Jackson estate has argued that those two men — James Safechuck and Wade Robson — both fabricated their stories for financial gain. HBO and the Jackson estate have been locked in legal battles ever since the network agreed to run the documentary, which premiered last year. Because Jackson is dead, the estate was unable to sue for defamation. Instead, they took advantage of a 1992 contract from an HBO concert special from Jackson’s “Dangerous” tour which contained a non-disparagement clause.
In September, U.S. District Court Judge George Wu sided with Jackson’s estate and ruled that the motion could move forward into arbitration. Now, HBO’s attorney, Theodore Boutrous, is urging the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Wu’s ruling. Boutrous’ argument was based on the grounds that the contract has expired. The special at the contract’s center was aired precisely once by the network, and Boutrous argued that neither side had operated as though the contract was still in effect in the years since.
As part of his argument, the network’s lawyer argued that Jackson had never updated the contact information for his lawyers and management firm in the contract, even though the attorneys listed no longer represent him and the management firm no longer exists.
“In light of the contract as a whole, it would be unreasonable to interpret the non-disparagement sentence, which is collateral to the 1992 Agreement’s principal objective of a one-time-only exhibition of ‘Live in Bucharest,’ to mean that the parties intended for HBO to waive its right to disseminate newsworthy allegations about Mr. Jackson for all time on any topic,” Boutrous wrote in his opening brief to the court.
Boutrous continued the brief by arguing that Jackson’s estate was essentially trying to bring a defamation claim against the network, but was using the contract as a loophole to get around the fact that defamation cases aren’t allowed on behalf of the dead. As Boutrous’ brief states, he believes that the case is an attempt to unlawfully punish potential critics of famous figures like Jackson.