Omar Sharif became a film idol playing men who went to war, from a sheik who took on the Turks in “Lawrence of Arabia” to the sensitive battlefield surgeon in “Doctor Zhivago.”
But it’s Sharif’s decision to step away from a fight that might make him an inspiration in Hollywood’s legal circles.
Earlier this year, the 76-year-old actor stopped defending himself against a civil suit by a valet he struck in the face outside a tony Beverly Hills steakhouse in 2005. Sharif, who had spent two years and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees attempting to settle the case, concluded that he was, in the words of one of his lawyers, “being shaken down” based on his celebrity.
Others may have gritted their teeth and written a check. Sharif refused. He let his attorneys go and said he was representing himself. Then he did nothing. He wrote no motions and attended no depositions. He skipped the trial.
The result was a default judgment, including a bill for the plaintiff’s legal fees, of $449,000. A lopsided outcome, but perhaps not a satisfying one for the winner.
Sharif has no intention of paying a dime.
“His position is that the judgment is never going to be collected,” said his former lawyer, Martin D. Singer.
An Egyptian citizen, Sharif has no assets in the United States and nothing to lose by flouting the judgment, former and current attorneys for Sharif say. The unpaid civil award won’t prevent him from traveling to the U.S. or working in films in Egypt and Europe, as he often has in recent years.
For the valet, Juan Ochoa Anderson, possible remedies are costly and time-consuming. The 50-year-old father who still works as a valet at Mastro’s Steakhouse can pursue Sharif’s assets in Egypt. But that would require a new trial there, complete with the mandatory translation of thousands of pages of case documents into Arabic.
The law firm representing Anderson has already poured $131,000 into the case on behalf of its client, a Guatemalan immigrant who earned $6.75 an hour plus tips at the time the suit was filed. The lead attorney, John C. Carpenter, acknowledged that recouping that investment might prove impossible, but he insisted his side had scored a moral victory.
“We’re certainly not crying because the verdict might be hard to collect or even uncollectable. Mr. Sharif has been exposed for the person he is,” he said.
Sharif declined to comment. In criminal court, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to two years’ probation and anger management classes. It was not his first brush with the law. In 2003, he was fined $1,700 and given a one-month suspended sentence for head-butting a French police officer.
His criminal attorney says Sharif was initially remorseful and concerned about Anderson.
“He was drinking that night. It was a misunderstanding. He said, ‘I would like to apologize to the man and if there’s any cost to him, I’d like to pay for it,’ ” said lawyer Harland Braun. “He didn’t realize it was Hollywood, and everyone tries to make a fortune off celebrities.”
As the months turned into years and the $325-an-hour legal bills mounted, Sharif became convinced that the valet wanted a payout that reflected Sharif’s fame, not real injuries.
Singer, Sharif’s lawyer in the civil negotiations, said that the actor was willing to pay “thousands” but that Anderson’s lawyer demanded “over a half-million dollars.”
Anderson’s attorney said those numbers were inaccurate but declined to say what the amounts were.
“We were prepared to pay an amount of money that would have been the most ever for a slap in the face,” Singer said.
Ironically, what sparked the incident was a dispute over Sharif’s money -- specifically a 20-euro note. On June 12, 2005, Sharif gave Anderson the bill as he climbed into the passenger’s side of a Porsche sport utility vehicle outside the restaurant.
Anderson, who does not speak English well, gave the bill a quizzical look and handed it back to Sharif. According to the valet, the actor became enraged and punched him in the nose.
In a statement to police, Anderson said Sharif called him “stupid” and said there were other insults he could not recall. An officer reported that Anderson “refused medical treatment and we observed no visible injuries at the time of our interview.”
But Anderson told police he wanted to press charges.
When Beverly Hills police contacted Anderson 10 days later, he had retained an attorney. According to a police report, an officer told him that Sharif “has offered to apologize to Mr. Anderson and compensate him for any damages.”
Anderson said he would wait to hear from Sharif.
It is unclear whether that call ever came. Six months later, Anderson sued Sharif for assault and battery, civil rights violations, commission of a hate crime, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. The complaint alleged that Sharif committed “illegal and grotesque acts of racial violence.”
“Over and over again, Mr. Sharif called Mr. Anderson a ‘stupid Mexican,’ ” Carpenter, the valet’s lawyer, alleged in court documents.
He said Anderson was suffering from “serious injuries,” which were outlined in subsequent court papers as neck, back and head pain, difficulty breathing, a nasal fracture and a deviated septum.
The proceeding became contentious. Sharif was outraged by the racial allegations, which he said were false and an insult to his multicultural background. Anderson’s lawyers asked the actor to attend mediation. He refused.
A doctor hired by Anderson’s lawyer said the valet needed a $17,500 operation to correct a fracture caused by Sharif. Another specialist, however, found no break. One attorney who had a newborn in intensive care charged that another lawyer had refused to reschedule a proceeding.
The case quickly filled three volumes in the Los Angeles County Superior Court complex in Santa Monica.
By January, the sides were still hundreds of thousands of dollars apart in settlement negotiations.
Sharif had had enough. He conferred with his lawyers and asked them to file one last piece of paper: an advisory that he would be acting as his own attorney in the future and that any legal correspondence should be directed to him, in care of the Katameya Heights Golf Club in Cairo.
When the trial began in February, the defense table remained empty. Anderson testified and, based on his account and other uncontested evidence, the judge ordered Sharif to pay the valet $318,190, including $22,000 for past and future medical bills and $75,000 for pain and emotional distress.
Last month, the judge added $131,000 in legal bills to the amount Sharif owes Anderson and his lawyers.
Sharif’s lawyers maintain that he was standing on principle by refusing to participate.
“He thinks that the system is broken,” Braun said.
Anderson’s lawyer scoffed at the idea that Sharif’s stance was based on principle.
“The principle of being able to humiliate people? The principle of being able to punch people who are trying to help you at a restaurant? The principle of calling someone a stupid Mexican when they are at work and can’t fight back?” Carpenter said.
Nicholas Galloway, a security guard at Mastro’s who saw Sharif strike the valet, said he was surprised by the amount of the judgment but had a difficult time naming the appropriate dollar figure.
“He shouldn’t have been punched in the face,” he said. “He’s very nice, an older gentleman.”
Anderson has one final chance to collect some money from Sharif when the judge in the criminal case determines restitution. A hearing scheduled for Wednesday was postponed to Aug. 21.
Criminal restitution, as opposed to civil damages, includes out-of-pocket expenses incurred by the victim because of the crime. Sharif’s lawyer said the amount should be less than $2,500 because the valet does not actually need surgery and had few other expenses. Anderson’s side says he should get much more because of the civil court verdict.
Whatever the restitution amount, Sharif will pay because disobeying a criminal court judge could result in his arrest, Braun said.