The British former stunt double of Hollywood star Angelina Jolie has become the first of six people to formally launch legal proceedings against Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in America over alleged phone hacking.
Eunice Huthart, a former star of the Gladiators television show who went on to become a stunt specialist in the US film industry, has lodged a damages claim in California.
While previous hacking civil actions have been limited to Mr Murdoch’s UK print businesses, the first of the new group of claims has targeted the global company of the Murdoch empire, News Corp, which is headquartered in New York.
The allegations, contained in a lengthy document lodged in a Californian district court, claim that Ms Huthart’s mobile phone messages were eavesdropped to obtain stories published in both The Sun and The News of the World. She was living and working alongside Ms Jolie in Los Angeles when the alleged hacking took place between 2004 and 2005.
The lawsuit is a significant blow for Mr Murdoch as his companies attempt to draw a line under the substantial financial damages that have already been inflicted as a result of the phone hacking scandal in Britain.
Compensation payouts and legal fees related to the affair have so far cost Mr Murdoch’s News Corp at least $340m (£216m).
Although privacy laws in the United States acknowledge the right to free speech, the potential of a US court to award punitive damages - which are difficult to obtain in an English court - could see the level of settlements rise beyond the UK figures, reaching millions of dollars.
The Independent understands that Ms Huthart’s case is the first of a flurry of six high-profile cases, linked to the US entertainment industry, which will be lodged directly against News Corp in its American heartland in the coming weeks.
Although further financial pain for News Corp will be unwelcome, reputational damage will be a major concern for shareholders.
News Corp is currently preparing to hive off is struggling publishing division into a separate company and to rename the lucrative entertainment division.
As well as filing for statutory damages under both Californian and US laws, Ms Huthart and her New York-based lawyers, Siegel Teitelbaum and Evans, are seeking punitive damages against News Corp and its British newspaper subsidiaries News International and News Group Newspapers.
News Corp this week denied claims that it is poised to pay a record fine of up to $850m (£540m) to settle a US Department of Justice investigation into claims that illegal newsgathering techniques in UK violated America’s stringent Foreign Corrupt Practices legislation.
The claim by Ms Huthart, who comes from Liverpool, alleges that her “cellular telephone system” was repeatedly accessed by unnamed private investigators and the information passed to unnamed journalists between 2004 and 2005 when she was living in LA.
Legal documents filed with the US District Court in California claim that the hacking coincided with a period when Ms Huthart was sharing a house with Ms Jolie and her personal assistant while they were working on the hit spy film Mr & Mrs Smith, starring the actress and Brad Pitt.
It was during the filming that Ms Jolie and Mr Pitt began their relationship, leading to the pair becoming Hollywood’s most newsworthy and closely-scrutinised couple.
Her claim states that Ms Huthart was told by Scotland Yard that her phone was hacked while she back home in Britain, before adding: “[Ms Huthart’s] cellular phone was also surreptitiously hacked... when she lived and worked in Los Angeles in 2004 and 2005, at which times she did not receive voicemail messages from, among others, her daughter, her husband and Ms Jolie. She was unaware of these illegal activities and had no reasonable opportunity to become aware of them.”
The Liverpudlian stunt worker began her journey to Hollywood in 1994 when she appeared as a contestant on ITV’s Gladiators and won the series, later joining the show as a professional. She then transferred her talents into stunt work, appearing in the James Bond film GoldenEye before heading to America, where her film credits include Titanic and the Tomb Raider series, which also stars Ms Jolie.
The claim, formally lodged last week, alleges that information obtained from Ms Huthart’s mobile phone while she was working in the States led to the publication of two stories in The Sun and one in the defunct News of the World in April and May 2005.
News Group Newspapers, the Murdoch subsidiary which publishes The Sun, has previously denied that the daily tabloid title carried out phone hacking.
Mark Lewis, the British solicitor who along with other lawyers played a key role in exposing the full extent of the hacking scandal, is acting as legal adviser to Ms Huthart and her American attorneys.
Mr Lewis is also acting for other British celebrities, including David Beckham and Princess Diana’s former butler Paul Burrell, who believe their phones may have been targeted while in America.
A News Corp spokeswoman in London said the company had no comment to make on the US court action.