A judge on the New York State Supreme Court has granted Random House's motion for summary judgment in a libel lawsuit brought by a woman who claimed she was defamed in the book Primary Colors. In December 1996 Daria Carter-Clark filed suit against Primary Colors author Joe Klein and Random alleging that the Ms. Baum character in the book was based on her, and that her reputation had been damaged by the book's suggestion that the woman had sex with presidential candidate Jack Stanton.
In ruling for Random and Klein, Judge Richard Braun found that the similarities between Carter-Clark and Baum were inadequate for a reader, "even one who knows Carter-Clark," to "reasonably believe" that Baum's character was based on her. In dismissing the case, Braun also found that "superficial similarities" between Carter-Clark and Baum "are not enough to create any issue of fact to be tried in this action."
Braun based his ruling in part on the premise that an author of a book of fiction "should not be held to the same investigatory standards as a writer of nonfiction." Braun wrote that while authors often base their works on people and experiences from their lives, "the essence of what they write is by definition fictional."
Linda Steinman, director of litigation for Random, said the decision was an important victory for authors because the court confirmed that "as long as a work is cast as fiction" a high standard must be met before a book can be found libelous. The decision also handed publishers a new precedent when defending themselves against similar suits. Braun ruled that a "plaintiff raising a libel claim against the publisher of a novel should be held to an even higher standard than on such a claim against a book's writer." It is economically unfeasible to expect a publisher "to do independent research regarding every possible defamatory reference in a fictional book," Braun declared. Steinman said that unless there is "a big red flag," Braun's ruling means publishers are not expected to investigate possible defamatory passages in a novel.
Regina Darby, attorney for Carter-Clark, was unavailable to comment on whether she plans to appeal the decision.