Hall County jurors may be asked to answer a novel question this summer: Can a work of fiction defame a real person?
A 5-year-old defamation lawsuit against the best-selling author of "The Red Hat Club" appears to be heading toward a trial in Hall County State Court and has the potential to be precedent-setting in the realm of publishing law.
Chief State Court Judge Charles Wynne set a July 13 trial date for the case of Vickie Stewart v. Haywood Smith.
Stewart, an Atlanta resident, alleges that Buford writer and former friend Smith defamed her in the book by modeling a fictional character too closely on her life. Stewart claimed that several people who read the 2003 novel about a circle of longtime friends in Atlanta pointed out the similarities in the character "SuSu" and Stewart.
Stewart claims in her suit that there are 22 similarities between herself and the SuSu character, including details about her family history, her marital history, the jobs she held, schools she’s attended and the places she’s lived.
She brought the lawsuit because the "SuSu" character is portrayed in "The Red Hat Club" as a sexually promiscuous alcoholic.
"Her reputation has suffered permanent injury throughout the United States, with the most significant damage to her reputation occurring in Atlanta, Ga., where she resides and is employed," the suit claims.
Smith’s book sold more than 100,000 copies and landed on the New York Times best-seller list.
Attorneys for Smith and the book’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press, have responded in court filings that the book "is a work of fiction and plainly designated as such."
"Defendants also specifically deny that the actions and behavior described and attributed to any character in the novel ... could reasonably be understood to be stating actual facts of and concerning a real person, including the plaintiff," Smith’s attorneys wrote.
In 2007, Wynne declined to grant a motion by the defense dismissing the suit. An appeal to the Georgia Court of Appeals followed. 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.
If the case goes to trial, a jury would be asked to decide whether the book defamed Stewart and whether it constituted public disclosure of embarrassing private facts.
Stewart’s lawyer, Jeffrey Horst, did not return a phone message seeking comment Wednesday.
Reached Wednesday, Smith’s attorney, Tom Clyde, declined to comment on the pending case.