Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

October 15, 2012

Libel trial to focus on Britney Spears' meltdown

ANTHONY McCARTNEY,AP Entertainment Writer
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Britney Spears' darkest days are about to be revisited in a Los Angeles courtroom, but not by the resurgent pop singer.

Instead jurors will begin hearing testimony next week on claims by Spears' former manager that he was vilified and unfairly blamed for the singer's public meltdown more than four years ago. Spears' parents are defendants and will likely testify, but the panel won't hear directly from the Grammy winner.

Former Spears confidante Sam Lutfi is seeking millions of dollars from Spears and her family, claiming her mother's book lied about him drugging and isolating the pop superstar. He is also seeking a portion of the singer's profits, claiming he was a key player in her 2007 album "Blackout" and had the right to serve as her manager for years.

Instead, the singer spent much of that time recovering under a court-ordered conservatorship, with her father and fiance continuing to exert control over her personal life. It is highly unlikely the star will be a witness during the trial, although a judge has said she will consider a request by Lutfi's attorney to call Spears as a witness mid-trial if necessary.

A probate judge overseeing Spears' conservatorship has ruled that the singer's caretakers should not allow her to testify "under any circumstances." Lutfi's attorney has cited the singer's record tour and her current role as a judge on Fox's "The X Factor" as reasons for why the singer should testify, but he may have to settle for the testimony of Spears' divorced parents, father Jamie Spears and mother Lynne Spears.

Jury selection began Friday and will continue on Tuesday, with opening statements expected later in the week.

The case is the culmination of years of acrimony between Lutfi and Spears' family and conservators, who successfully obtained a restraining order against him to keep him from contacting the singer or trying to intervene in her life. The order has expired, but conservatorship attorneys are seeking repayment for more than $93,000 in legal fees — a judgment Lutfi is appealing.

Lutfi sued in February 2009, roughly a year after Spears was hospitalized and placed under the conservatorship to take control of her health and finances. The move by Jamie Spears came after months of erratic behavior by his daughter, including shaving her head, speaking in a British accent and other bizarre incidents that also led to her losing custody of her two sons with ex-husband Kevin Federline.

Lutfi was a constant presence around Spears during the tumultuous period. In his court case he maintains that he was trying to help her, though her parents paint a more sinister picture. They say Lutfi drugged and isolated their daughter — cutting her phone line and hiding her cellphones — and used the paparazzi as "henchmen."

Many of the claims were included in court filings used to obtain the conservatorship, but Lynne Spears included them in her 2008 book "Through the Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World." Lutfi is suing for libel and defamation based on three chapters in the book that describe him as a "general" to the paparazzi and portray him as a man trying to manipulate not only the singer, but her mother.

Lutfi claims he was trying to aid Spears' career and help her regain custody of her children. The book's allegations have caused him to be "subjected to unfathomable amounts of ridicule and public scorn," his lawsuit states.

Lutfi's attorney, Joseph Schleimer, and attorneys for the Spears family declined comment on the trial, which may last nearly three weeks.

Lynne Spears' attorney, Stephen Rohde, has noted in pretrial hearings that the burden is on Lutfi to prove that the statements in the book are untrue and that his client knew they were false.

A judge has also limited the case against Jamie Spears, who Lutfi accuses of hitting him in the chest at the singer's house shortly before the conservatorship's establishment. Lutfi is no longer entitled to recoup damages for emotional distress if a jury finds that a battery occurred.