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Defamation suit over book comes to trial
Author: Character isnt based on acquaintance
Vickie Stewart turns to speak to her attorney Tuesday during her Hall County State Court trial against Haywood Smith, author of “The Red Hat Club.”

Author Haywood Smith smiled Tuesday when her attorney said parts of her book read like scenes from the 50’s-era television series "I Love Lucy."

In his opening statements to a Hall County jury Tuesday, Attorney Tom Clyde described "The Red Hat Club" as a humorous, "light-hearted novel" with an "utterly implausible plot" that could not be considered a truthful account.

But attorneys for Smith’s childhood acquaintance, Vickie Stewart, told jurors there are nearly 30 similarities between their client and one of the novel’s predominant characters, a sexually promiscuous alcoholic named "SuSu."

Stewart is suing Smith and St. Martin’s Press, the company that published both "The Red Hat Club" and its sequel, "The Red Hat Club Rides Again," for defamation and invasion of privacy. The book, set in Atlanta, is the story of five women who have been friends for more than 30 years since high school and team up to get revenge on a philandering husband.

Stewart’s attorney, Jeffrey Horst, claims that it is difficult to tell fact from fiction, and that St. Martin’s Press failed to exercise ordinary care when they published the book.

"These are good stories if you’re an author," Horst said. "They’re not so good if you’re the person who had to live through them."

Horst said the character based on Stewart has the same hair and eye color as well as the same mannerisms as Stewart.

Both "SuSu" and Stewart have first husbands who died in automobile accidents, both are constantly late and both were flight attendants late in life, Horst said.

But the difference between Stewart and "SuSu" is that her fictional counterpart would drink on the job, have sexual encounters with her friends’ husbands and seduce airline patrons, Horst said.

"One of the easiest ways to make a lie believable is if you surround it by truth," Horst said in opening statements Tuesday. "The more facts you put around the lie, the more believable it becomes, and that’s the most effective way to tell a story."

Horst said Stewart and her friends recognized Stewart as the "SuSu" character when they read the book. Friends who testified on behalf of Stewart on Tuesday said her role in the book had been the subject of gossip in their bridge club. One friend, Peggy Ford of Norcross, testified that Stewart had been left out of invitations for parties and trips since the book was released.

As attorneys for Stewart began laying out their case for the jury Tuesday, Ford and other friends testified that Stewart has been more guarded and less outgoing than she was before the book was released.

"I know she was very upset by the book and felt betrayed..." Pope said.

Stewart initially filed suit in Hall County State Court in 2004 when the first book was published, then sued again in 2006 upon the publication of the sequel.

In January 2007, Hall County State Court Judge Charles Wynne refused to grant a defense motion to dismiss the suit, prompting the appeal to the state Court of Appeals. Last year, the appeals court cleared the way for the lawsuit to proceed, though it threw out three claims — that the book constituted false light invasion of privacy, negligent infliction of emotional distress and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Georgia Supreme Court late last year declined to hear an appeal of the Court of Appeals’ ruling.

Jurors were sent home Tuesday with a copy of Smith’s book in-hand with instructions from Wynne to begin reading it. The trial continues today in Hall County State Court.