Entertainment Law Digest (US), August 25, 2003

Ruling - Hardball

7th US Circuit Court of Appeals No. 01-4314

Robert E. Muzikowski

Paramount Pictures Corporation, et al.

The man whose story gave rise to the movie “Hardball” has won a chance to prove his claims that the movie defamed him.

Robert Muzikowski has devoted many years to coaching Little League Baseball teams in depressed areas of Chicago. Author Daniel Coyle wrote a book called “Hardball: A Season in the Projects” about the Chicago Little League teams, including those coached by Muzikowski. Paramount bought the rights to the book and made a movie it released in 2001. The film starred Keanu Reeves in the role of Conor O’Neill, a character that Muzikowski claims was based on him.

The Paramount film had a disclaimer on it saying, “While 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.” Despite this disclaimer, most of the advance publicity for the film emphasized that the movie was fact-based.

Muzikowski claimed that the Conor O’Neill character had similar life experiences to his own. He pointed to the character’s dropping out of college when his father died, his alcoholism and being arrested for his involvement in a bar fight, which left a permanent scar on his hand. All these things happened to him. But in real life, Muzikowski turned his life around after being bailed out. He stopped drinking. He became active in Little League. The O’Neill character, by contrast, is a drunk, a gambler and a petty criminal. He becomes involved with Little League to pay off a gambling debt.

Muzikowski filed suit to block the release of the film. The district court granted Paramount’s motion to dismiss and the film was released as scheduled.

Muzikowski filed an appeal without an attorney. The appeals court agreed with Muzikowski that the trial court had erred in dismissing his complaint.

The appeals court explained that a defamation action may state a claim for either 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). The trial court found that Muzikowski had not stated a claim for defamation per se because the statements Paramount made were reasonably capable of “innocent construction” or of referring to someone other than him. It dismissed the per quod claim because Muzikowski had not pleaded the special damages and money loss that are required to state a per quod claim.

The appeals court cited the Illinois Supreme Court ruling in Bryson v. News Am. Publications, Inc., 672 N.E.2d 1207, 1219 (Ill. 1996) and dismissed the disclaimer as irrelevant to their consideration of whether the film was defamatory. The panel wrote, “Simply because the story is labeled ‘fiction’ and, therefore, does not purport to describe any real person does not mean that it may not be defamatory per se.”

Paramount argued that in the Bryson case the plaintiff’s surname had been used; here the movie does not ever use Muzikowski’s name. The appeals court was not persuaded. It said that all that matters is whether persons other than the plaintiff must have reasonably understood that the film was about him. The court noted that although Illinois has special pleading rules for defamation cases where the plaintiff is not named, those rules do not apply in federal court. Here, the plaintiff’s complaint fulfilled the requirements of notice pleading by fully informing the defendants of the things that the plaintiff considered defamatory in the film.

Turning to the merits of the defamation per se claim, the panel found that Muzikowski had properly alleged a prima facie case. He claimed that in the film the Conor O’Neill character lies that he is a licensed securities broker. The appellate court noted that under Illinois law, alleging or implying that a person is not a legitimate member of his profession is defamatory per se. In addition, the film shows the O’Neill character committing crimes such as theft. This is also defamatory per se.

The appeals court said that Muzikowski is entitled to his chance to prove his case that the defamatory statements cannot reasonably be construed as pertaining to anyone other than himself. On the other hand, according to the court, “it is entirely possible that Paramount will be able to produce enough facts to support its ‘innocent construction’ argument. At this stage, however, we believe it was premature to reject Muzikowski’s case.”

The appeals court did, however, affirm the dismissal of Muzikowski’s per quod defamation claim because he did not plead specific damages as required.

Judges: Ripple, Wood, Evans

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