The Ditzy Defense
Potentially good news for dimwits everywhere. There may exist a “ditzy defense” in the world of libel. And based on what happens in a Los Angeles Superior court, we’ll soon know for sure.
The case arises from the movie “American Hustle” and specifically a line delivered by Jennifer Lawrence. In the scene that’s the subject of the suit, Lawrence and her husband, played by Christian Bale, are arguing about a new microwave oven that Bale received as a gift. Lawrence claims that the microwave takes nutrition out of food. Bales says that’s “BS.” Lawrence responds, “it’s not BS. I read it in an article. Look, by Paul Brodeur.”
This is where it gets interesting. Paul Brodeur is a real life scientist. And around the time in which the movie was set – the late seventies – Brodeur regularly gave interviews on the then new-fangled device. In one interview, he was asked if there was any danger in eating food cooked by a microwave. He answered “none that is known.” So in Brodeur’ s view the reference to him in the movie inaccurately and unfairly portrays him as a fear monger.
The interesting thing about the case is the nature of the film itself. It’s not fiction, since it’s at least loosely based on real events. But it doesn’t pretend that it’s completely accurate either. As the film’s opening title says “Some of this actually happened.”
So, can a plaintiff base a libel suit on statement by a character in a movie that is, by its own admission, not necessarily an accurate depiction of history? On the one hand, why not? If the statement is presented as a fact, about a real person, why should it matter that it was presented in a fictionalized presentation? If someone writes a screenplay and includes a reference to “Cincinnati lawyer Jack Greiner, who defrauded his clients out of millions of dollars” (not true by the way) but presents it as a historical fact, why shouldn’t I be able to sue for that?
On the other hand, and at the heart of the “ditzy” defense, is the argument that it matters which character says it. Jennifer Lawrence’s character in “American Hustle” was not entirely stable, or reliable. So having her make the statement about Brodeur makes it questionable whether that particular item was reported as a historical fact. In other words, her character is so “ditzy” that the audience can’t really take anything she says as factual. And so nothing she says could form a viable libel claim.
We’ll see what happens. I’m not really sure which way the court will go. But I imagine in retrospect, the film makers are wishing they had just made up a name of a scientist. Kind of ditzy not to do that in my view.