Sunday, February 11, 2007

Playing Hardball pays off for Paramount in Illinois

Muzikowski v. Paramount Pictures Corp., --- F.3d ----, 2007 WL 416983 (7th Cir.)

“Robert Muzikowski has devoted years of his life to coaching Little League Baseball teams in economically depressed areas of Chicago,” the court began. After assistant coach Daniel Coyle’s book about the league Muzikowski co-founded led to a movie, Hardball, Muzikowski sued for defamation, arguing that a character “easily identifiable” as Muzikowski was portrayed badly.

In the case’s first trip to the Seventh Circuit, the court concluded that the district court shouldn’t have granted Paramount’s motion to dismiss, because Illinois state courts’ heightened pleading standard doesn’t apply in federal court for a claim of defamation per se. The district court then granted summary judgment to Paramount (and sanctioned Muzikowski’s lawyers for failure to comply with procedural orders).

The film Hardball told the story of a Little League coach named Conor O’Neill. Though the movie claimed to be a fictitious story not based on actual persons, O’Neill had many similarities with Muzikowski. “Both came from Irish-Catholic working-class backgrounds; both were involved in a bar fight in which they cut their hand; both were jailed as a result; both experienced the death of their father and financial difficulties.” There were also differences; some were unremarkable, but others showed O’Neill in a bad light: “[U]nlike Muzikowski, who had a history of alcohol and drug abuse that he successfully overcame, O’Neill was still an alcoholic at the time of the events portrayed in the film; O’Neill was a compulsive gambler; and O’Neill’s original motivation for becoming involved in the team was a selfish desire to pay off a gambling debt.” Muzikowski sued for defamation and false light invasion of privacy.

Because he was claiming defamation per se, he was not required to prove damages. Even a statement that’s defamatory per se, however, may not sustain an action if it may reasonably be innocently interpreted or reasonably interpreted as referring to someone other than the plaintiff. Illinois has a high standard – if there are two reasonable interpretations of a statement, the innocent one prevails, because damages are presumed in per se actions. In earlier proceedings, the Seventh Circuit ruled that the complaint adequately alleged that the portrait of O’Neill as an unlicensed securities broker was defamatory per se (Muzikowski is a licensed broker), and that showing O’Neill committing crimes such as theft injured his reputation. On remand, Muzikowski had the burden of demonstrating that no one could think that anyone but him was meant, and that the changes, far from supporting the idea that O’Neill was a different character, only served to defame him. Muzikowski didn’t submit evidence that there was no reasonable innocent construction of the movie, and the district court granted summary judgment.

The court of appeals affirmed. It’s an open question whether liability can be avoided “if the only details that distinguish the plaintiff from the character described by the defendant are themselves defamatory,” and the court was far from confident that Illinois would follow a rule that, the more defamatory the movie, the better the studio’s defense. Nonetheless, there were also non-defamatory differences, such as the different names and different family status of Muzikowski and O’Neill. Thus, reasonable viewers could see the connection between the two, but they were not compelled to do so. Given that the “of and concerning” element of false light invasion of privacy is basically the same in Illinois as the innocent construction rule, the court affirmed the grant of summary judgment on that claim as well.

On remand, Muzikowski had added various false advertising and consumer protection claims under the Lanham Act and state law. He argued that Paramount’s promotion of Hardball as “inspired by a true story” was false because of the extent to which his life story had been changed. The district court held that he hadn’t submitted sufficient evidence that the ads were false or that consumers had been deceived. It’s literally true that the film was inspired by a true story. Muzikowski submitted 18 affidavits from people who knew him who had seen Hardball and all believed that O’Neill was portraying Muzikowski. Given that the movie grossed more than $40 million, the affidavits fell far short of proving that a substantial segment of the viewers was deceived. Eighteen instances of confusion, under the circumstances, were de minimis.