Media & Communications Law

Defamation Suit Over Realistic Fictional Character Allowed

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A woman can sue novelist Haywood Smith for defamation based on allegations a hard-drinking, promiscuous character in his book bears a striking resemblance to the plaintiff, a Georgia appeals court has ruled.

Plaintiff Vickie Stewart says she is not a promiscuous alcoholic, an atheist, or a “right-wing reactionary,” unlike the “SuSu” character in the book, according to the Fulton County Daily Report. The book, The Red Hat Club, had described SuSu as so promiscuous that a “layover” was “a double entendre of galactic proportions.”

But there are striking resemblances that led Stewart’s friends to conclude the character was based on her life, according to Stewart’s lawsuit.

Both Stewart and SuSu lost their first husband in car accidents and had trouble collecting settlements. Both graduated from the same high school, and both became flight attendants. The resemblance is not mere coincidence, the suit says, since Stewart has known Smith for more than 50 years.

The Georgia Court of Appeals refused to dismiss the lawsuit in a March 28 opinion. Reasonable readers could interpret the negative portrayal of the high-flying SuSu as true, the court said.

“To the extent that the defendants argue that merely because a book is labeled as ‘fiction’ or a ‘novel’ it is automatically protected from being considered defamatory, such argument lacks merit,” the court wrote. “Simply because a book is labeled ‘fiction’ does not mean that it may not be defamatory.”

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