Dec 2 (Reuters) - Two sugar barons from the Dominican
Republic can proceed with their defamation lawsuit against a
film company over a documentary about the treatment of laborers
on their plantations, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.
But while the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals revived the
lawsuit against film company Uncommon Productions LLC, it also
ruled that the sugar executives would have to prove that the
filmmakers released the film knowing it contained false
"The Price of Sugar", released in 2007, followed a Spanish
priest in his efforts to organize migrant Haitian laborers on
sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic. Narrated by Paul
Newman, the film had limited screenings in several major
Felipe and Juan Vicini Lluberes sued the filmmakers in
2007, accusing them of misrepresenting the working and living
conditions on their family-owned plantations. The brothers took
issue with the film's allegations that the Vicini family
imprisoned and murdered laborers. They said the film's
depictions of worker fear, suffering and malnutrition were
The strength of the Vicinis' defamation case turns on
whether they are public figures or not. If they are public
figures, the brothers must prove that the filmmakers knew their
depictions were false. If they are private figures, the
filmmakers could be liable for simply publishing information
without verifying its truth.
The 1st Circuit agreed with the lower court in finding that
the Vicinis were public figures under the circumstances.
"Both enjoyed access to the press and exploited it by
orchestrating a PR blitz to garner public support and mute
their critics," Judge Jeffrey Howard wrote for a unanimous
three-judge panel. In doing so, the Vicinis assumed roles of
prominence and the risk of public scrutiny.
The public figure finding is "very important," said the
film company's lawyer, Thomas Curley, because the brothers now
face a much higher standard to win their defamation suit. "It's
a real protection for the media in dealing with public
officials and public figures," he said.
During the litigation, a dispute arose over whether the
filmmakers had to hand over a report prepared at the direction
of their attorney to help secure insurance coverage for the
film. The district court denied the Vicinis' request for the
report, finding it was protected by the attorney-client
privilege. But the 1st Circuit disagreed.
The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court to
reconsider whether the attorney-client privilege applies to
shield the report from disclosure. After that, the court can
then determine whether the filmmakers knowingly published false
Joan Lukey, a Ropes & Gray lawyer for the Vicinis, said in
an email that her clients were pleased that the case will
resume but disappointed with the public figure finding. They
are considering whether to appeal further, she said.
The case is Vicini Lluberes et al v. Uncommon Productions
LLC et al, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, No.
For the Vicinis: Joan Lukey and Maria Arlotto of Ropes &
For Uncommon Productions: Elizabeth Koch and Thomas Curley
of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz; Jonathan Albano of Bingham
(Reporting by Terry Baynes)
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