Ga. jury finds Red Hat author defamed former friend

Monday, November 23, 2009

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — A Hall County jury has decided that an author libeled a former friend in a novel.

On Nov. 19, the jury found that Haywood Smith's bestselling 2003 novel The Red Hat Club damaged Vicki Stewart because it featured a character who closely resembled Stewart and portrayed her as a sexually promiscuous alcoholic. The jury rejected a claim of invasion of privacy.

The jury of eight men and four women awarded Stewart $100,000 in damages but denied her request for attorney fees. Because Stewart is not a public figure, her attorneys needed to prove only that Smith acted with negligence, not the higher standard of actual malice.

Stewart thanked members of the jury at the conclusion of the trial and said she hoped the verdict would lead to better publishing laws.

Smith said she accepted the verdict and hoped Stewart would find it healing.

Peter Canfield, an attorney who represented Smith and publisher St. Martin’s Press, said they would consider appealing the verdict.

Canfield was quoted by the Gainesville Times as saying, “We believe the law protects works of fiction, and this was a work of fiction. … But there was some confusion created by the (jury) instructions.”

Stewart’s right to pursue the lawsuit had earlier been challenged by the defendants, but had been upheld by the state courts.

During this month’s trial, an associate dean and professor of English from the University of Georgia testified that modeling fictional characters after real people was commonplace in literature.

Dean Hugh Ruppersburg cited Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby and Flannery O’Connor’s Good Country People as but a few examples of authors basing their characters on real people.

“It’s very common for writers to draw on historical, cultural facts from the world they live in and place them in novels to make them seem as real as possible,” the professor said.

Ruppersburg, a paid expert witness for the defense, said “from the first sentence, the first paragraph of (The Red Hat Club), it presented itself to me as a work of fiction.”

Asked whether it might be difficult for readers to separate the real Vicki Stewart from the SuSu of the novel, the professor said that shouldn’t be the reader’s job.

“The reader’s job is to decide whether he or she believes that individual character behaves like a credible human being,” Ruppersburg said.

During his cross-examination of the professor, plaintiff’s attorney Jeffrey Horst showed the witness an essay Smith wrote titled “Creating Memorable Characters.”

Smith wrote, “Borrow from life, then embellish it all you want (disguising the people you use sufficiently to avoid problems, of course).”