A 14-year-old’s novel, which has been published online, is at the heart of a defamation case in Dallas as plaintiffs contend that the young author used a classmate’s real name, “placing her in unfathomable, graphic scenes ranging from immoral and demeaning to shocking and illegal.” These types of lawsuits are often called “libel-in-fiction.”
The parents of the girl, identified as E.T. in the complaint, have also sued the parents of the young scribe, identified as N.C., alleging that he wrote the book under their supervision of and on a “computer(s) purchased by them”; his parents are both professors at Southwestern Medical School.
According to the complaint:
In an effort to conceal his true intent to portray these children in a false light, N.C.’s story takes place in 11th grade instead of 8th grade. N.C. also attempts to call his book ‘fiction’ in the Acknowledgment and falsely indicates he had E.T.’s permission to use her name and that she agreed ‘to have such horrible things done to her in the book.’ In reality he did not have permission, and his intent was to portray E.T. and the other children negatively and with the intent to damage their reputations and cause them severe mental anguish.
Did the author have permission to use the girl’s name? The complaint itself even admits so, but also claims there were extenuating circumstances:
Sometime during 7th grade, N.C. approached E.T. and informed her that he was writing a book and that she was a character,” the complaint states. “He told her that she would be ‘date raped’ in the book. As a young girl without an understanding of what ‘date rape’ implies, E.T. simply responded with, ‘Oh, OK.’ While she felt it was ‘creepy’ she was conflicted because she knows to always ‘be nice.’ When N.C. told her he was writing a book, E.T. believed it was going to be ‘like a 3 page essay on notebook paper’ because she could have never imagined a 13-year-old writing a full-length, published novel. When N.C. mentioned to E.T. what would happen in the book, E.T. never understood and could not have possibly comprehended the extent to which horrific acts would be carried out. Instead of truthfully disclosing the content of the book to E.T., he quietly wrote of multiple ‘incidents’ that E.T. could never fathom or believe anyone could or would write about her. E.T. never agreed or consented to such false, deceitful, and twisted statements.
Scenes objected to by the parents of E.T. include those in which the character who shares her name performs sexual acts and is drugged and raped. The complaint alleges that the book has intentionally caused permanent damage to E.T.’s reputation and seeks damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, slander, and libel.
These types of “libel-in-fiction” cases are rarely successful, but even when authors win, there can be heavy financial costs associated with fighting a lawsuit as well as potential loss of goodwill among readers. Lloyd J. Jassin, Esq. of Copylaw.org has some good information on how to best avoid someone suing you for libel based on a character in your novel in The Legal Consequences of Using Real People in Fiction.
What do you think of this case? Who wins?