Could media and entertainment companies become the next target for plantiff lawyers?

For Hollywood, that question took on new urgency Monday when the Supreme Court refused to dismiss a Louisiana lawsuit against Oliver Stone and

Warner Bros.

, alleging that

Natural Born Killers

, Stone's bloody 1994 film, incited a pair of teenagers to shoot a woman in a convenience story robbery. Relatives of Patsy Ann Byers, who was paralyzed in the March 1995 robbery and has since died of cancer, argue that Stone and Warner, a unit of

Time Warner


, should be held accountable for copycat crimes inspired by the movie.

Traditionally, courts have been extremely reluctant to hear cases of this kind because of the extraordinary protection the

First Amendment

provides for free speech. But a state appeals court in Louisiana allowed this suit -- which argues that

Natural Born Killers

is not constitutionally protected because Stone intended the movie to incite violence in its viewers -- to proceed.

That decision spurred alarm among entertainment companies, which joined with Time Warner and Stone to ask the Supreme Court to overrule the Louisiana court and throw out the suit. But on Monday, the Supreme Court rejected their argument and reaffirmed the appeals court ruling, returning the suit to the discovery stage in Louisiana.

"We're disappointed," says Robert Vanderet, a First Amendment expert in Los Angeles who filed a brief supporting Time Warner on behalf of the

Motion Picture Association of America



(FOX) - Get Report

and dozens of other companies. "The Louisiana decision was completely out of step with all other federal and state decisions in that area, and we would hope that the United States Supreme Court would correct that mistake up front."

Joe Simpson, the lawyer representing the Byers family, says he's looking forward to taking Stone's deposition. He points to a 1996 interview Stone gave with

The New York Times

in which the filmmaker said that "the most pacifistic people in the world said they came out of this movie and wanted to kill somebody."

"I'm a left-wing liberal, and I fervently believe in those things that are meant to protect the First Amendment. But it seems to me that there needs to be a line drawn," Simpson says. "I just wondered why they made the movie."

Both sides agree that the suit remains a long shot, with Simpson estimating his chances of victory at just 10%.

"All of these suits will fail in the end, because the


doesn't allow liability to be imposed on this theory," Vanderet says. But he adds that simply by allowing the suit to go forward, the Supreme Court risks chilling artistic expression.

"The real concern is that if there's any indication that these suits are going to be allowed past the pleading stage, the insurers who insure these films will become increasingly concerned about content," Vanderet says. In a business that is already lawsuit-happy and barely break-even, more litigation will only increase costs and discourage filmmakers from taking chances, he says.

"At the end of the day, it's not going to stop a

studio like Warner Bros. from making an important movie, but it might stop an independent producer."

But for Simpson -- and the family of Patsy Byers -- a world without

Natural Born Killers

would be just fine. Says Simpson, "It's an ugly movie."