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Law & Order becomes defendant in libel-in-fiction case

“Patel”? Fuck you. Fucking Shiva handed this guy a million dollars, said “Sign the deal!” he wouldn’t sign. And the god Vishnu too. Fuck you, John! You know your business, I know mine. Your business is being an asshole. -Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross

Back in 1994, New York attorney Ravi Batra fell out of his chair. According to the New York times:

He sued the Brooklyn company that sold him the chair. He said the fall had left him with herniated disks, loss of height, worn-down teeth, heart damage and frustration and anger that ”leaks out in certain relationships,” according to court papers.

He sought $80 million — for his suffering, but also for a patio bar and a game room with table-tennis and air-hockey tables ”to permit activity without injury or waste of travel time,” the papers said. (source)

He eventually received a $225,000 settlement in that case. Defense lawyers say that he got favorable rulings from a judge with whom Batra was awfully cozy. Batra says that the facts were simply on his side.

Fast forward to 2003.

On May 3, 2003, the New York Post reported that then-Brooklyn Administrative Judge Ann Pfau had “warned fellow jurists to steer clear” of Batra. And a Nov. 11, 2003, New York Times article entitled “Cozying Up to Judges and Reaping Opportunity” characterized Batra as a “particularly potent force” who had a hand in selecting judges. (source)

The next day, “Law & Order” aired an episode, entitled “Floater.” This “centered around the husband of a woman who turns up dead in the Hudson River. The husband’s alibi leads police to uncover a corruption scandal involving a divorce lawyer and a judge at the courthouse where his wife worked.” The fictional character is seen bribing a New York judge.

The fictional lawyer’s name? Ravi Patel.

Ravi Batra filed a defamation suit against 35 defendants, including Law & Order producer Dick Wolf and NBC Productions for “his” portrayal in the episode.

The defendants filed for summary judgment, and surprisingly, the defendants lost.

[The Judge] said that Batra had to demonstrate that the alleged defamation is “of and concerning” him and that viewers were “totally convinced the episode in all aspects as far as the plaintiff is concerned is not fiction at all,” the judge wrote.

She added that generally “New York courts favor early adjudication of libel claims to protect freedom of speech from the chilling effect of unwarranted claims.”

Moreover, she commented that no “libel-in-fiction claim has survived a summary motion in New York” during the nearly “25 years since the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the complaint in Springer v. Viking Press, 90 AD2d 315 (1st Dept. 1982), aff’d, 60 NY2d 916 (1983).”

In that case, the Appellate Division, 1st Department, dismissed the claim of a woman who lived on the same street and had the same name as a character in one chapter of a novel portrayed as a “whore” who engaged in “abnormal sexual activity.”

Nonetheless, the judge rejected defendants’ claims that similarities between Batra and the fictional Patel were “abstract.”

In one respect, the case is not ridiculous. An alleged libel must be “of and concerning” the plaintiff. At the time this episode aired, Batra was one of six NYC attorneys with the first name “Ravi.” Additionally, he physically resembled the character.

The judge noted that viewers would not notice any differences between Batra and the fictional character. She said that none of the actual facts would be known to an average viewer — who would only know about Batra through media coverage.

While the case might proceed, and the ruling might have been favorable to Batra in the short run, it seems that he may have won the battle, but lost the war. The judge’s ruling held that since Batra was a public figure with respect to a prior judicial corruption scandal, the case was distinguishable from Springer.

Given the “context in which ‘Floater’ was presented, extensive media coverage linking Batra to the Garson/Siminovsky scandal, there is a reasonable likelihood that the ordinary viewers, unacquainted with Batra personally, could understand Patel’s corruption to be the truth about Batra,” the judge concluded.

Since Batra is now deemed to be a public figure, he is going to need to prove actual malice in order to prevail on the underlying defamation claim. That kind of victory is extremely rare — with or without Ricky Roma on the jury.

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