Hollywood scored a victory on Thursday when a federal district court judge in Los Angeles dismissed an Iraq war veteran’s suit against the makers of “The Hurt Locker.” The plaintiff, Sgt. Jeffrey Sarver, had alleged that the film’s director and writer used him as the basis for the film’s main character, Will James, without permission. Sarver claimed that the filmmakers “cheated [him] out of financial participation in the film” and that he was defamed by the film’s depiction of Will James as “a man who had no respect and compassion for human life.”

The judge’s dismissal of Sarver’s claims included an order for him to pay the filmmakers’ attorneys fees for defending the suit. In her order, the judge stated that the film’s value “unquestionably” derived from the creativity and skill of the filmmakers. She noted that the filmmakers made significant changes to Sarver’s alleged character in the film, and those changes were sufficient to satisfy the “transformative” requirement for an on-screen depiction of a real-life person. The judge also rejected Sarver’s defamation charge, pointing out specific scenes in the film where Will James is portrayed as a man who loves his son and shows compassion for Iraqi citizens.

Mark Boal, the film’s writer, had spent time embedded with Sarver’s bomb disposal unit in Iraq while reporting for Playboy magazine, an article that became the basis for “The Hurt Locker.” Boal claimed that the film was inspired by many soldiers he met throughout his time in Iraq, and he called Sarver’s suit a “disservice” to the other soldiers on whose experiences the film was also based. Boal’s attorney called Thursday’s dismissal “a huge victory for all filmmakers who should feel comfortable using real-life events as inspiration for their films.” However, given the growth of the fact-based film segment and the potential for huge damage awards, filmmakers should expect to face similar suits in the future despite this victory.

– Henson Millsap

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2 Responses to Federal Judge Dismisses ‘Hurt Locker’ Suit

  1. Ian Quin says:

    I think one problem plaintiffs have in these suits is proof–demonstrating that despite the tweaks a screenwriter or director makes to a character, the plaintiff is nonetheless entitled to damages. Many times a character is based on a composite of several different people whose traits are compiled together. One also must be mindful of the potential chilling effect on the creative process that could arise if the ability of plaintiffs to secure judgments were made too easy.

    Nonetheless, plaintiffs are sometimes successful in these suits. For instance, Chuck Wepner, the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa character in the “Rocky” franchise, was able to secure a financial settlement from Stallone around the time of the release of “Rocky Balboa” in 2006.

  2. jcollins says:

    There was a similar lawsuit recently against the author of “The Help” – the author was sued by her brother’s former maid who believed that one of the characters in the book was based on her. Like in this case, the plaintiff took issue with the manner in which she was depicted in the film. While her case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired, I would be curious to know if cases like this are ever successful. It seems as though most courts would be loath to hold an author liable for something that is almost an inevitable part of the writing process. Many authors use the traits of those around them as the starting point for characters. While the outrage over a negative depiction is understandable, individuals do not have an exclusive right to tell their life story. Instead of suing, maybe these plaintiffs should tell their side of the story.

    Moreover, the defamation claim in “The Hurt Locker” lawsuit seems to be unfounded as there is no “factual assertion” implicated in a creative depiction. Depicting someone as lacking in human compassion is not a false statement of a fact – it is one person’s original interpretation of the actions of another. I think the court got it right by ordering the plaintiff to pay the filmmakers’ attorney’s fees. Courts should not encourage this type of meritless lawsuit.