Recently in California, movie actor and director Dennis Hopper was sued by movie actor Rip Torn. It seems that Mr. Torn was considered, but passed over, for a part in “Easy Rider”, the movie that launched Jack Nicholson’s career. Although that happened about 30 years ago, the wound was reopened for Mr. Torn when Mr. Hopper appeared on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.

Mr. Hopper, who wrote and directed “Easy Rider”, described to Jay Leno the reasons for his decision to use Mr. Nicholson instead of Mr. Torn. According to Mr. Hopper, Mr. Torn thought that his part was being cut out of the picture, so Mr. Torn pulled a knife on Mr. Hopper during dinner. Mr. Torn denied Mr. Hopper’s recollection of the dinner. Mr. Torn agreed that a knife was pulled, but Mr. Torn’s version is that Mr. Hopper was the one who pulled the knife, and Mr. Torn had to disarm him.

How exactly does this relate to homeowners’ insurance? Mr. Torn sued Mr. Hopper for defamation after the Tonight Show appearance. We don’t know whether Mr. Hopper owns a home, but if he does he probably has homeowner’s insurance, just like most homeowners. We also don’t know whether Mr. Hopper made a claim to his insurer for defense of this action (we’ve seen no reports indicating insurance involvement), but he probably should have. Homeowner’s insurance typically includes coverage for claims of defamation, including libel and slander. Even if the claims may be false, the insurer can be obliged to pay for the attorneys’ fees and expenses necessary to defend the claims. The insurer may also have an obligation to contribute toward a reasonable settlement of the claims.

There are many different types of coverages included within a typical homeowner’s insurance policy. Just because a claim is not for “slip and fall” personal injuries, policyholders should not assume that homeowner’s insurance benefits are not available. You paid your premiums and you should get the benefit of the coverage you bought. That coverage can include the costs of attorneys’ fees and expenses to defend claims against you, as well as any liability for a settlement or judgment that may be imposed. Consult an attorney familiar with insurance law if you are not sure of whether you are entitled to coverage.

Epilogue: The matter was tried before Justice Campbell Lucas (Ret.). In 1997, Justice Lucas found in favor of Mr. Torn, and awarded $475,000 in actual damages against Mr. Hopper. After an appeal, the matter was reset for hearing of punitive damages. Justice Lucas awarded Mr. Torn an additional $475,000 in punitive damages.

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