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Red Hot 'Red Hat' Attorney

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Atlanta, GABusiness litigation lawyer Jeffrey Horst had his work cut out for him when Georgia socialite Vicki Stewart walked into his office with a bone to pick. A book written by a friend of hers had recently rocketed onto the New York Times bestseller list and Stewart wanted to sue the author and the publisher for libel. "It was the first time I had ever taken anything like this on," says Jeffrey Horst. "Initially I thought, 'well, this is going to be a tough case.' We knew they had deep pockets on the other side and St. Martin's Press was going to go to matt over this."

"But I play to win," says Horst. "I don't take cases on that I intend to lose."

Horst's client, a vibrant woman of a certain age, was from the very well-heeled Atlanta suburb of Buckhead, sometimes known as the Beverly Hills of the East for its reputation as place where the "old money lives and new money comes to party."

In 2003, Stewart's friend Haywood Smith wrote a racy novel called the The Red Hat Club. Among the book's characters was a promiscuous alcoholic called SuSu. Stewart couldn't help noticing that details of SuSu's life bore a very strong resemblance to her own life.

"At trial we identified 39 identifying characteristics between one of the principle characters and our client, everything from eye and hair color to unusual events that had transpired in our client's life," says Horst. "Her first husband was killed in a car crash by a drunk driver, and so was Vicki's. SuSu became a flight attendant in her fifties and our client became a flight attendant in her fifties."

A first the author and her publisher, St. Martin's Press, maintained that Stewart might have provided some inspiration, but that the book was all fiction.

Never Give Up on the Emails

Proving libel in a work of fiction is tough. To make his case, Horst wanted the author's emails – all of them. The defense insisted that it had forfeited the entire contents of the author's computer. Not satisfied, Horst called in the dogs. "We engaged an independent forensic computer expert – and two days before trial we got a couple of hundred more emails – two-thirds of which we used at trial," says Horst.

"In one of those emails, the author had written to a friend something like, 'the woman who I loosely based my fictional slut character on has threatened to sue me,'" recounts Horst.

Fiction is No Defense

The defense called on experts and professors of English to testify that writers have been using real people as inspiration for works of fiction for centuries. "That makes a very nice and compelling argument," says Horst, looking back on the trial. "But I felt all along that this author had done something that that was not right."

In the end, the jury of eight men and four women found in favor of Horst's client, Vicki Stewart. The $100,000 award was substantially less than Stewart's legal costs. But it was the principle, not the money, that loomed large.

"I think Vicki feels totally vindicated," says Horst. "For five and a half years she has advocated her position and we have advocated on her behalf against extremely long odds and large resources on the other side. And eventually we wound up with a six-figure verdict delivered by a jury consisting of eight men and four women. All of which was a tall order in a very conservative venue."

Jeffrey Horst is the senior litigator with Krevolin & Horst in Atlanta, Georgia.
He graduated from Miami University in 1979 (B.Ph) and from Ohio State University College of Law (J.D.) in 1983. Horst has been recognized for outstanding achievement on a number of occasions and is Fellow of the American Academy of Trial Counsel.

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