LOS ANGELES - A former attorney for Heath Ledger is suing over a $10 million life insurance policy he claims has gone unpaid since the actor's death earlier this year.
Attorney John S. LaViolette sued Minnesota-based ReliaStar Life Insurance Co. in July, claiming the company is trying to avoid paying the claim to Ledger's 2-year-old daughter Matilda Rose.
The lawsuit doesn't mention Ledger or his daughter's name, but states that it is on behalf of a man who died of "accidental causes on January 22, 2008." That is the date the 28-year-old actor was found dead of an apparent accidental prescription drug overdose in New York City.
ReliaStar states in its legal response that it is seeking more information about whether Ledger may have lied on paperwork and about whether his death may have been a suicide. LaViolette's lawsuit claims ReliaStar had to investigate any statements Ledger made in paperwork while the actor was still alive.
The lawsuit was removed from Los Angeles Superior Court to federal court in August. Its existence was first reported by celebrity gossip Web site TMZ.
"We have not rendered a decision on this claim," said Dana Ripley, a spokesman for ING Americas, which owns ReliaStar.
He said he could not comment on specifics about the lawsuit or Ledger's policy. "This is a very private and confidential matter," he said.
William Shernoff, the attorney representing LaViolette and Matilda Rose, said in a statement that ReliaStar has told him it will seek the depositions of a masseuse who found Ledger's body and of Mary-Kate Olsen, who received a flurry of phone calls after the body was found. The insurance company's attorneys also want to question Ledger's co-stars, agents and doctors, Shernoff said.
"There's a young girl whose father died who is entitled to this money, and ReliaStar is doing everything it can to avoid paying," Shernoff said in a press release.
He accused the insurer of trying to drag out the payment process, saying the lawsuit could take years to resolve.
Shernoff said Ledger's death has been thoroughly investigated and that ReliaStar's suggestion that it may have been suicide is improper.
"There's not a shred of evidence it was suicide," Shernoff said.
Born in Australia, Ledger was nominated for an Oscar for his role in 2005's "Brokeback Mountain." His performance as the Joker in this summer's blockbuster "The Dark Knight" has led some to call for a posthumous Oscar nomination.
It was on the set of "Brokeback Mountain" that Ledger met Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film. The couple had a daughter, Matilda Rose, and lived together in Brooklyn until they split up last year.
Matilda Rose will inherit all of her father's estate, the actor's father told Australia's The Sunday Times this weekend. Ledger's will had been signed before Matilda's birth and all his assets were left to his parents and three sisters.
Kim Ledger told the newspaper that the family had given all the money to Matilda and that Williams made no claim for it. The will listed assets and cash of $118,000, but Heath Ledger's estate is believed to be worth more than $16.3 million, the newspaper reported.
Accountant Mark Dyson, who is an executor of the estate, said he could not reveal how much Matilda would inherit.
It is unclear whether the estimated worth of Ledger's estate used by The Sunday Times includes any expected insurance payout.
LaViolette's lawsuit states that he is listed as the beneficiary on Ledger's policy and is suing to try get the money for Matilda Rose.
Ledger properly made all payments for the policy, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit claims ReliaStar sent a letter a week after Ledger's death seeking medical and pharmaceutical records. The lawsuit claims such inquires should have been made before the actor's death and are now barred under California law.
ReliaStar counters that its inquiries are valid and that the lawsuit is "premature" since no determination on whether to pay the policy has been made.
A scheduling conference for the case is scheduled Dec. 1.