A chapter of the defendant’s book about the 2008-2009 US housing market collapse paints the plaintiff in a negative light. The plaintiff claims that 26 statements made in the chapter are defamatory.
None of the statements made about the plaintiff in the book are actionable because they do not meet the criteria laid out under New York libel law.
The defendant, author Michael Lewis, wrote a book entitled The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine about the 2008-2009 US housing market collapse. The book looks at a group of people who shorted, or bet against, the subprime mortgage bond market at a time when most real estate investors thought real estate prices would continue to rise. One chapter of the book, entitled “Spider-Man at the Venetian,” contains statements that are defamatory to the plaintiff and his business. This chapter contains 24 pages, a third of which focuses on a dinner conversation that took place in January 2007 involving the plaintiff. This chapter paints the plaintiff in a negative light, and the plaintiff claims 26 allegedly defamatory statements were written in the chapter.
Did the trial court properly grant summary judgement for the defendant?
Yes. None of the claims made in the book chapter are actionable. The trial court judgement for the defendant is affirmed.
Judge Winter believes that the portrayal of the plaintiff is particularly graphic and actionable because it purports to show his state of mind at the time of the 2007 conversation. Further, the book’s author admitted that he does not use a fact checker, and much of what the book says about the plaintiff is false. A jury or fact finder could easily determine that these statements are defamatory and actionable.
New York law requires five elements to recover in a libel case: (1) a written defamatory factual statement about the plaintiff; (2) publication to a third party; (3) fault; (4) falsity of the defamatory statement; and (5) special damages or per se actionability. By this test, not all (or even most) maligning remarks are considered defamatory. A defamatory statement must also expose an individual to public hatred or shame and is not actionable if it does not reach this necessary level of derogation. Many of the statements about the plaintiff in the book’s chapter do not rise to this level of derogation. Further, a number of the challenged statements could be considered opinions—thus not meeting the standard of fact required for a libel claim. Others are not specifically about the plaintiff. Because of this variety of reasons, none of the statements made in the book against the plaintiff are actionable under libel law.