Paparazzi supplied the Hollywood actor Heath Ledger with cocaine in a Los Angeles hotel room and then secretly filmed him snorting the drug, according to US court documents.
Footage of the set-up – some of which was shown briefly on US television, prompting protests – was then sold to media outlets including British newspapers for more than $1m (£500,000).
Two paparazzi who were working for the LA-based Splash News & Picture Agency paid for cocaine which they then used to entice the Brokeback Mountain star into a meeting where he was secretly filmed.
The claim against the Tinseltown photo agency thrusts the actions of unscrupulous paparazzi back into the limelight just days after photographers in search of the ultimate scoop were partly blamed by an inquest jury for the "unlawful killing" of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed.
Although the footage of Heath Ledger in the Chateau Marmont Hotel – where the actor John Belushi died of a drug overdose in 1982 – was shot more than two years ago, it hit the headlines just days after his death in January, following its sale to media outlets around the world.
The lawsuit, filed late on Friday in Los Angeles, accuses the Splash agency, which employed the two paparazzi, of paying for cocaine so they could secretly videotape the actor snorting the drug in a hotel room on the night of the Screen Actors Guild Awards. It says the revenue generated by selling the videotape should be forfeited under a California state law forbidding paparazzi from profiting from illegal activity.
A woman who was freelancing for People magazine at the time, and who was dating one of the photographers, filed the lawsuit under the Jane Doe pseudonym, seeking unspecified damages for fraud, distress and privacy violations. She claimed that her reputation has been damaged as a result of being featured in the footage, which she wants destroyed.
It is the second time since Ledger's death – from an accidental prescription drug overdose – that the controversial video has hit the headlines. America's two most-watched entertainment shows, Entertainment Tonight and The Insider, ran trailers promising to air the "Hollywood Drug Party" in full in January, but ended up pulling the story after an outcry from the actor's influential public relations firm.
Clips, including Ledger's confession to smoking "five joints a day for 20 years" and showing him holding a rolled-up banknote or piece of paper, are still circulating online, however. They do not show Ledger snorting cocaine, although the lawsuit claims he did.
Splash could not be reached yesterday to comment.Reuse content