Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Case of the Elderly Flight Attendant

How do you turn friends into enemies? Put them in your novel and make sure they can recognize themselves.

Haywood Smith's novel, The Red Hat Club, included a character named "SuSu." In the book, SuSu received a large insurance settlement after her first husband was killed in a car accident. Later, she became engaged to a man who owned nursing homes in Florida and was already secretly engaged to another woman. This man eventually stole SuSu's insurance settlement, moved to Florida, and transferred his assets to his mistress. Although a court awarded SuSu $750,000, she was unable to collect it. Then, at the age of 50, SuSu became a flight attendant.

(Okay, so 50 isn't elderly. I should know, because I've already passed that milestone. But I needed a catchy title, and 50 is an advanced age to start a new career as a flight attendant.)

Why did Smith's novel draw her into a lawsuit? The facts summarized above weren't unique to her fictional character. They also fit her real-life friend, Vickie Stewart. Still, Smith might have been fine if she had stopped there.

But, unlike the real-life model, SuSu was a sexually promiscuous alcoholic who drank on the job. So Stewart sued for defamation.

Smith argued that fiction can never be defamatory, and she asked the judge to throw the case out without a trial. When he refused, Smith appealed.

Like the judge, the appeals court rejected Smith's argument. The court said that fiction could be defamatory if the statements were about an identifiable person. The appeals court held that there were enough factual similarities to let a jury decide whether readers would identify Stewart with SuSu. Then it sent the case back to the lower court for a jury trial.

The jury concluded that readers who knew Stewart would realize that SuSu was based on her. And since there was no evidence that Stewart was a sexually promiscuous alcoholic, the jury also found that Smith defamed her.

So what do we learn from the case of the elderly flight attendant? Just because you write fiction doesn't mean you won't be sued for defamation--or that you can't lose.

If you want to write about real people and situations in your fiction, change enough facts to disguise the characters. This requires time and creativity, but it could avoid hard feelings and a lawsuit. And your writing will be better for the effort.

* * * * *

Stay tuned for next month's post on the case of the traveling food critic.

Kathryn Page Camp


  1. Wow. I'd never heard about that. What a shame for all involved.

  2. OH NO! A cliff hanger -- did SuSu get revenge on her dastardly "fiance" while serving him in a plane after she became a flight attendant?! That's what I want to know -- without having to read the book. . . :-) HEY, Kathryn, you should be writing suspense! (Maybe you are secretly these days?? You have the compelling style, for sure!!)

  3. I get asked every day if my new book (that isn't even out yet) is about me and my church. I'm getting a little nervous about that as far as people thinking I've written about them when nothing could be further from the truth! Do you think a disclaimer at the front of the book that "this is a work of fiction and any resemblance to anyone is purely coincidental" releases a writer from liability? Just curious. Not worried about being sued myself.

  4. Carla, Haywood Smith asked her publisher to add a disclaimer before the second printing, and it didn't make a bit of difference. Actually, those disclaimers are kind of like chicken soup. They don't hurt, but they may not help, either. The best defense is just to make the characters as unrecognizable as possible.

    Millie, I like reading suspense, but I'm not planning on writing it. Right now I'm just concentrating on getting my nonfiction book, "Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal," ready for publication. All the legal issues of interest to writers in one place!

  5. So Kathryn, how about also an answer to my SuSu question?? :-)

  6. Millie, the opinion didn't answer that question. If you really want to know, you'll have to buy the book and find out for yourself. (It's available for Kindle, but, frankly, it doesn't sound that interesting.)