Jury finds libel in fictional character

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Jury finds libel in fictional character

Fri Nov 20, 2009 @ 01:25PM PST

By Eriq Gardner

N190156 Last year, we wrote about attorney Ravi Batra, who convinced the New York Supreme Court not to dismiss a "libel-in-fiction" defamation claim against the TV show "Law & Order" over a corrupt fictional character.

Now comes word of a new success by an individual pushing the same legal theory that fictional characters inspired by real life counterparts can be defamatory.

A Georgia jury has ruled that Haywood Smith, author of the bestselling novel "The Red Hat Club," libeled a former friend who had served as inspiration for a character portrayed as a sexually promiscuous alcoholic. The jury awarded $100,000 in damages to the plaintiff, Vicki Stewart.

In the past, defamation claims based on fictional characters haven't been very successful. (For example, in 1985, Nathaniel Davis, the former US ambassador to Chile, lost a $150 million libel suit against the makers of the Universal film "Missing.") But that might be changing.

In the "Red Hat" case, Smith's lawyers took this case up to the Georgia Court of Appeals before it could be heard by a jury. As a result, the case likely won't amount to a net monetary win for Stewart, who spent five years litigating the battle.

But combined with the Batra victory last year, the decision signals that anybody producing works of fiction shouldn't shrug off defamation liability.

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The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to [email protected]

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