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"Hurt Locker" lawsuit enters dangerous territory

By Eriq Gardner

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Remember on the eve of the Academy Awards when a U.S. Army bomb disposal expert sued producers of "The Hurt Locker" claiming that the film ripped off his life story and defamed him?

The defendants in the case -- including distributor Summit Entertainment, production company Grosvenor Park, screenwriter Mark Boal, director Kathryn Bigelow, producer Nicolas Chartier and Playboy Enterprises (Boal's script was based in part on his Playboy article) -- could be a few steps away from defusing this litigation grenade.

Last week, New Jersey federal judge Dennis Cavanaugh ruled that the case should be moved to California District Court, where it has now been transferred.

Since the lawsuit was first filed last March, the parties have been battling over jurisdiction. The plaintiff, Master Sgt. Jeffrey Sarver, claimed that New Jersey was the proper forum since that's where he lived at the time the film was produced. But in his decision, Judge Cavanaugh noted that by the time the film had been released, Sarver had moved to Tennessee, and he called the choice of the New Jersey forum "seemingly random."

In moving the case to California, Judge Cavanaugh has given the defendants some ammunition (despite the appearance that he's given a small victory to Sarver by refusing to dismiss the case outright).

Both California and New Jersey have laws that protect an individual's right of publicity -- crucial to Sarver's main claim. However, the biggest difference between the two states is that New Jersey has no "anti-SLAPP" statute, the law that gives defendants a quick recourse to essentially countersue for an attempt to stifle free speech. California, on the other hand, has a pretty strong anti-SLAPP statute, and it's been a popular tool of defendants fighting-right-of-publicity and defamation claims, such as the ones being exerted by Sarver in his lawsuit.

In other words, the U.S. soldier who claimed that "Hurt Locker" damaged him could now risk paying damages to the film's producers. Will Summit launch a counteroffensive to hopefully convince Sarver to retreat from his claims? The studio declined to comment.

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