Jackson estate says HBO film violates non-disparagement contract: lawsuit

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The estate of Michael Jackson filed a lawsuit on Thursday against HBO saying that its documentary about allegations of child sex abuse by the late singer breached a previous agreement by the cable channel not to disparage him.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, said HBO could owe more than $100 million in damages for what the estate called the network’s “reprehensible disparagement” of the “Thriller” singer in the documentary.

Documentary “Leaving Neverland” is due to be broadcast on AT&T owned HBO on March 3 and 4 after a world premiere at the Sundance film festival last month.

In the documentary, two men who are now in their 30s, say they were befriended by Jackson and were sexually abused by him starting from when they were 7 and 10 years old.

Jackson, who died in 2009, was acquitted at a 2005 criminal trial in California on charges of molesting a different, 13-year-old boy, at his Neverland ranch.

The lawsuit does not seek to prevent the broadcast of the documentary but says it violates a 1992 contract for HBO’s broadcast of Jackson’s “Dangerous” world tour, in which the network agreed not to disparage him at that time or in the future.

The estate is seeking to enforce a clause in the 1992 contract saying it entitles the estate to arbitrate the dispute.

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“Despite the desperate lengths taken to undermine the film, our plans remain unchanged,” HBO said in a statement on Thursday. “HBO will move forward with the airing of the two-part documentary on March 3rd and 4th. This will allow everyone the opportunity to assess the film and the claims in it for themselves.”

The singer’s family last month called the documentary and news coverage of the accusations in it a “public lynching” and said Jackson was “100 percent innocent.”

Howard Weitzman, an attorney for the Jackson estate, said in a statement on Thursday that HBO “could have and should have ensured that ‘Leaving Neverland’ was properly sourced, fact checked and a fair and balanced representation.”

He said the network had “breached its agreement not to disparage Michael Jackson by producing and selling to the public a one-sided marathon of unvetted propaganda to shamelessly exploit an innocent man.”

Reporting by Jill Serjeant and Jonathan Stempel; editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool