March 24, 2008
Law and Order and "Libel-in-Fiction"
Posted by Christine Hurt

I am an admitted L&O junkie, and everytime the "all persons portrayed herein are fictional" disclaimer pops up, viewers know that this means that the plot will be "ripped from the headlines."  Although some of these episodes are really cheesy (i.e., ones that mirror the lives of Anna Nicole Smith), some of these episodes are my favorites.  The earliest one that I remember recognizing was from Season One and centered around a character reminiscent of Hedda Nussbaum.  However, not everyone loves these episodes.  For the first time, someone has sued the producer, Dick Wolf, over an episode from November 2003:  Floater.

In Floater (IMDB page here), a bald family law attorney, Ravi Patel, repeatedly bribes a Brooklyn judge, Ruth Alexander, to receive favorable treatment for his clients in divorce cases.   A court clerk is also being paid to make sure that Patel's cases are heard by Judge Alexander more frequently than random assignment would allow.  However, one party in a divorce case is not happy about this and is killed by the judge in order to silence her.  Both Patel and Alexander ultimately confess to the crimes.  (The victim's body in the river is the "floater.")  Real life bald Manhattan attorney Ravi Batra finds this plot too close to home.  Batra, who has never been charged with a crime or confessed to one, was implicated in a Brooklyn bribery scandal shortly before the Floater episode aired.  In the real new story, Judge Gerald P. Garson was charged with accepting bribes from Paul Siminovsky, a divorce lawyer.  Garson, however, wore a wire to gather evidence for the police regarding a judicial bench seat-buying scheme and captured an Assemblyman on tape.  An attempt to capture Batra, a noted political heavy weight and colleague of the Assemblyman, on tape during a meeting with Garson was unsuccessful.  Not content with being vindicated in the law, Batra now wants to vindicate himself on TV.

Batra has filed a lawsuit on the theory of "libel-in-fiction."  Because Ravi Patel is so close in appearance and name to Ravi Batra, Batra attests that viewers will assume that Batra is as crooked as Patel was in the similarly-depicted bribery situation.  Although this theory is not generally a winner, a judge in NY has allowed Batra to proceed over a motion for summary judgment.  Will this mean the death of "ripped from the headlines" plot lines?  NYT story here and New York Law Journal story here.

Interestingly, I never would have recognized the similarities here because the underlying case is a local NY one. 

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