Cover of The Red Hat ClubTruth may be stranger than fiction, but falsity is certainly more expensive.
In Stewart v. Smith (Case No. 2004-SV-1137), a Hall County (Ga.) jury of eight men and four women after two days of deliberation returned a $100,000 verdict in favor of plaintiff Vickie Stewart against her former friend, Haywood Smith, author of the NY Times best-seller "The Red Hat Club" (2003), finding that a fictional character in the novel named "SuSu" mirrored Stewart's life in many aspects. The jury did not award the plaintiff attorneys' fees, which likely exceed $100,000 after a five-year battle. A Georgia Appeals Court ruled in March 2008, that the SuSu character could be based on Stewart (Stewart v. Smith, 291 Ga. App. 86, 660 S.E.2d 822 (2008)), which enabled the jury trial against the author and her publisher, St. Martin's Press, to proceed.
The novel involves five red hat-wearing fiftyish Buckhead women who seek revenge against the philandering spouse of one of their rank. A disclaimer in "The Red Hat Club" states that the book is a work of fiction that is not to be confused with "The Red Hat Society," an international group boasting more than 40,000 chapters of women who wear red hats and purple clothing and, according to the organization's Web site, espouse a philosophy of "fun after 50."
Stewart alleged that, unlike "SuSu," she is not an atheistic, right-wing reactionary, promiscuous lush. However, she claimed the character did share some 30 similarities with Stewart, including where she grew up, her occupation, and how her first husband died. Apparently, the jury agreed.
Georgia's law of defamation, according to the judge's instruction, required the jury to 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 injured by the statements." Because Stewart is a private individual, rather than a public figure or public official, she only needed to prove negligence, rather than actual malice.
Rarely is defamation sustained in a work of fiction, though there are exceptions, such as Bryson v. News- America Publications, Inc., 672 N.E.2d 1227 (Ill. 1996). The author has indicated that she will not appeal the verdict, but St. Martin's, which published 600,000 plus copies of the novel, may have other ideas.