A Hall County jury will continue deliberating today whether a woman was libeled by a fictional character in a novel that sold more than 600,000 copies.
A verdict against bestselling author Haywood Smith and publisher St. Martin’s Press could be precedent-setting in a publishing world where novels often contain characters based on real people.
Smith’s former friend, 63-year-old Vicki Stewart, sued the author after the 2003 publication of “The Red Hat Club,” a humorous novel about Buckhead socialites that contains a character named SuSu with more than 30 similarities to Stewart. Smith has acknowledged Stewart was the “inspiration” for the character, but said that any real events she portrayed in the book are “filtered through a completely fictional character.”
Stewart sued for defamation and invasion of privacy because the SuSu character is portrayed in the book as a sexually promiscuous alcoholic, which Stewart says she is not. Some of the many factual details about Stewart contained in the book amounted to invasion of privacy, Stewart claims.
In closing arguments Wednesday, an attorney for Stewart challenged Smith’s contention that her fictional characters were made from a “patchwork quilt” of real people.
Holding up a clean, white, lineless fabric, attorney Joann Williams wrote the word “slut” on it with a permanent black marker.
“This is what she did to the fabric of Vicki Stewart’s life,” Williams said. “She made her into a slut, an atheist and an alcoholic. Ms. Smith’s irresponsible words have stained the fabric of Vicki Stewart’s life. These stains will never come out.”
The author’s attorney, Tom Clyde, maintained that “The Red Hat Club” was fiction “in every sense of the word.”
“Anybody who picks this up and reads it in a reasonable way understands it captures the essence of a fictional work,” Clyde told the jury in his closing argument.
Clyde said that even as Stewart’s friends recognized her in the SuSu character, they also recognized the differences.
“They understood SuSu’s promiscuity was not Ms. Stewart, they understood that SuSu’s drinking was not Ms. Stewart,” Clyde said.
“This whole case is about a small group of friends ... who are going to recognize the similarities, but they’re also going to understand the differences,” Clyde said.
Plaintiff’s attorney Jeffrey Horst told the jury that “simply because they call it fiction, that doesn’t get them off the hook — it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Hall County State Court Chief Judge Charles Wynne instructed the jury of eight men and four women on Georgia libel law.
In order to find libel, a jury must find that a publication contains false and defamatory statements concerning the plaintiff that were communicated to a third party, that the person making the statements was negligent by not exercising ordinary care in making them, and that the plaintiff was damaged by the statements.
Because Stewart is not a public figure, a jury needs only to find there was negligence, not actual malice.
Libel judgments are commonly returned over works of nonfiction, such as magazine or newspaper articles, but are virtually unheard of in the world of fiction. Most libel lawsuits involving novels are thrown out or settled before they reach a jury.
Stewart’s case has survived several defense challenges over the past five years and her right to take it to trial was upheld by Wynne and the Georgia Court of Appeals. The Georgia Supreme Court declined to hear a pretrial appeal of the lower court rulings.
Horst, Stewart’s attorney, did not quote a price for his client’s allegedly damaged reputation from the novel, though he did throw out a few numbers.
“What is her reputation worth?” Horst said. “Is it $1 million, $3 million, $5 million? I can’t answer that for you.”
Horst earlier told the jury that New York-based St. Martin’s Press, Smith’s co-defendant in the suit, is “one of the world’s largest publishers.”
The suit was filed in Hall County because Smith lived in the Hall County portion of Buford when the book was published.
Peter Canfield, an attorney for the author, told the jury there was no evidence Stewart has been hurt by the book, an essential element in proving libel. He said a verdict against his client would “do her reputation a great injustice.”
“Be concerned not about fictional characters, but real people,” Canfield said. “Your decision will not change SuSu – she’s just a character on a written page – but it will have a real impact on real people.”
The jury deliberated for a little more than three hours before going home for the night. They were to resume deliberations this morning.