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Muzikowski v. Paramount Pictures Corp


    Citation. Muzikowski v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 477 F.3d 899, 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 2784, 2007-1 Trade Cas. (CCH) P75,587, 35 Media L. Rep. 1468 (7th Cir. Ill. Feb. 8, 2007)

    Brief Fact Summary. Paramount Pictures Corp. (Defendant) produced a movie, which, according to Robert Muzikowski (Plaintiff), portrayed him in an unflattering and false manner. Plaintiff sued Defendant for defamation.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. If a statement is capable of two reasonable constructions, one defamatory and one innocent, the innocent one will prevail.

    Facts. Plaintiff, a licensed securities broker and insurance salesman, was active in founding and coaching inner-city Little League Baseball programs in very poor neighborhoods. A book, Hardball: A Season in the Projects was published, which devoted some attention to Plaintiff and his life. Defendant acquired the motion picture rights to Coyle’s book and produced the movie Hardball, which tells the story of a coach named Conor O’Neill. No character in the movie is named Robert or Muzikowski and there are no references to Little League Baseball. The credits of Hardball state, “[w]hile this motion picture is in part inspired by actual events, persons and organizations, this is a fictitious story and no actual persons, events or organizations have been portrayed.” The O’Neill character in the movie version of Hardball experiences was almost identical to Plaintiff. The only differences, in Plaintiff’s opinion, are unflattering and false as applied to the real man. When Defendant announce
    d to the public that it was going to make the movie Hardball, Plaintiff began getting telephone calls from all over the country from friends and acquaintances telling him that Defendant was about to make a movie about him. Defendant made it clear that the movie Hardball was to be based on the book. Plaintiff sought to enjoin the distribution of the film. The district court dismissed his claim for damages on summary judgment. Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue. If a statement is capable of two reasonable constructions, one defamatory and one innocent, will the innocent one will prevail?

    Held. Yes. Judgment reversed.
    * A defamatory statement is one that “tends to cause such harm to the reputation of another that it lowers that person in the eyes of the community or deters third persons from associating with him.” A defamation action may state a claim either for defamation per se (statements so harmful to reputation that damages are presumed) or defamation per quod (statements requiring extrinsic facts to show their defamatory meaning).
    * In a per se action, Plaintiff may recover only if Defendant’s statements fit into one of the four limited categories: (1) commission of a criminal offense; (2) infection with a venereal disease; (3) inability to perform or want of integrity in the discharge of duties of public office; (4) fornication or adultery; or (5) words that prejudice a party in her trade, profession, or business.
    * If a statement is capable of two reasonable constructions, one defamatory and one innocent, the innocent one will prevail. Thus, if the statement may reasonably be innocently interpreted or reasonably be interpreted as referring to someone other than Plaintiff there can be no per se action.
    * In this case, the court held that summary judgment was not appropriate. Plaintiff might be able to produce evidence showing that there is in fact no reasonable interpretation of the movie that would support an innocent construction.
    * Because Plaintiff did not specifically state his damages, we affirm the judgment for Defendant on the per quod claim.

    Discussion. In this case, the district court erred in granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff should be allowed to present evidence to a jury that no person could reasonably have thought that O’Neil was portrayed as someone other than Plaintiff.



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