Judgment for film-makers in Wolf of Wall Street libel claim

A defamation claim against Paramount, the makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, has been thrown out by a US Court.

The Judge granted summary judgment on a claim brought by the former general counsel of the infamous securities brokerage Stratton Oakmont, the firm at the centre of the 2013 film, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, and which was directed by Martin Scorsese.

The claimant, Andrew Greene, complained that the character of Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff, a lawyer at the fictitious version of Stratton Oakmont shown in the film, played by actor PJ Byrne, was a depiction of him.

The film shows the Koskoff character engaging in a wide range of criminal activity, including drug use, engaging in sexual relations with prostitutes, and other highly unprofessional conduct.
Greene was the actual general counsel and head of corporate finance at Stratton Oakmont during a key period depicted in the film, and four years ago launched a claim against the studio and production company behind it.

The ruling highlights the difficulty for claimants of bringing a claim over fictionalised depictions of real-life events.

One feature unique to US law was the need for Greene, as a public figure, to show “actual malice” on the part of the Defendant, i.e. to demonstrate that it knew that the allegations made about the claimant were not true.

This is a key protection afforded to the media by US defamation law which does not exist in the UK.

Here, the Court pointed out, it was intertwined with the need for a defamation claimant to show that the statement complained of referred to him.

The Judge concluded that a number of interlinked elements meant that Greene could not establish malice, saying:

“Specifically, based on (1) the fictionalized nature of the Movie; (2) the undisputed facts that the Koskoff Character is a composite of three people and has a different name, nickname, employment history, personal history, and criminal history than the Plaintiff; (3) the Movie’s disclaimer; (4) evidence of each Defendant’s subjective understanding that no real person was portrayed — or defamed — by the Koskoff Character; and (5) the lack of evidence to the contrary, the Plaintiff cannot establish that Defendants in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of [the] publication.”

Using controversial and recent real-life events in fiction can be fraught with difficulty.

However, this decision shows that removing identifiers by using name changes, disclaimers and creating composite characters can help film-makers minimise the defamation risks.

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