LOS ANGELES (Legal Newsline) – An author whose casual mention in the film "American Hustle" triggered a defamation lawsuit that was rejected by a California appeals court earlier this month might have fared better had the film been a documentary, an entertainment industry attorney said in a recent interview.
"The Plaintiff likely would have had a better case if the film was more of a fact-based docudrama or a documentary and not a 'farce,'" Eric May, a senior associate in Kelley Drye's Los Angeles office who represents entertainment companies, said during a Legal Newsline interview.
"In this case, however, the Court noted that the statement made about the Plaintiff in the film is 'not reasonably susceptible of a defamatory meaning' based on its characterization of the film as a 'farce' and also due to the context in which the statement appears."
The California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District-Division Eight handed down its opinion June 6 in Paul Brodeur v. Atlas Entertainment, Inc., et al. The appellate court's opinion reversed the Los Angeles Superior Court denial of a defense motion last year asking the court to strike the lawsuit filed by science journalist Paul Brodeur.
Defense attorneys in the lower court case claimed the lawsuit infringed on the movie producers’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech, also guaranteed under California’s anti-SLAPP law. That law prohibits lawsuits that inhibit public participation.
The appellate court's decision to reverse that decision certainly was a blow to Brodeur's case but not a surprise, May said. "I am not surprised by the Court’s ruling, particularly because it characterizes 'American Hustle' as a 'screwball farce,'" he said.
Brodeur's $1 million defamation lawsuit stems from a single line of dialogue uttered by a character, Rosalyn, played by actress Jennifer Lawrence, arguing with her husband, Irving, played by Christian Bale, in a scene from the 2013 dark comedy crime film "American Hustle" directed by David O. Russel.
The film is a fictional adaptation of the 1970 Abscam scandal, a two-year federal sting operation that netted several public officials who agreed to accept bribes in exchange for various political favors.
In the scene, the wife tries to convince her husband that microwave ovens take "all of the nutrition out of our food." The husband emphatically denies that is true, and the wife shows him an article in a magazine. "Look, by Paul Brodeur," she says. The husband then spends the next 10 seconds of the scene reading the article.
Brodeur's work, including "The Zapping of America: Microwaves, Their Deadly Risk, and the Cover Up," was widely published in the 1970s. Brodeur claims that he never said microwaves remove nutrition from food and that citing him as the source of that unscientific tarnished his reputation.
Brodeur filed his case in the Superior Court of California for Los Angeles County, claiming libel, defamation, slander and false light. Named defendants in the case are Atlas Entertainment, Annapurna Productions, and Columbia Pictures Industries.
Much of the defense position in the case has involved defaming the character of the wife in the movie, which did not impress the Superior Court but does seem to have swayed judges in the appellate court.
"The Court noted that the statement made about the Plaintiff in the film is 'not reasonably susceptible of a defamatory meaning' based on its characterization of the film as a 'farce' and also due to the context in which the statement appears," May said.
"The Court noted that, early on that the film opens with the line 'some of this actually happened,' setting the stage that the events in the film are not completely accurate. Moreover, the character who makes the allegedly defamatory statement is characterized as 'slightly unhinged' and 'a font of misinformation.'”
That made a strong impression on the appellate court, May said.
"These factors caused the Court to doubt whether 'any audience member would perceive any of Rosalyn’s dialogue as assertions of objective fact," he said.