The producers of the Oscar-nominated The Hurt Locker, which Roger Ebert* deemed the second best film of the decade, were just sued by Sgt. Jeffrey Sarver, a former explosive ordinance disposal technician with the 788th Ordinance Company, with whom journalist Mark Boal — the writer of The Hurt Locker — was “embedded” on assignment for Playboy Magazine.

The complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (where Sgt. Sarver lived during the relevant times), gives some examples of the similarities:

The title “The Hurt Locker” – Plaintiff originated this term and said it often around colleagues while in Iraq. Defendant BOAL took interest in this phrase and asked Plaintiff what the phrase meant. Because Plaintiff was told Defendant BOAL was collecting information for the sake of documenting a factual report about Army EOD in general, Plaintiff acquiesced with BOAL’s request, which he said often while during his deployment in Iraq;

“War is a Drug” – Another phrase Plaintiff used when talking to Defendant BOAL;

“Will James”, played by Jeremy Renner” – Mr. Renner is essentially the same age and height; to personate Sgt. Sarver, Renner’s hair was dyed blonde, and Renner impersonated Sgt. Sarver’s persona down to the smallest detail, including the replication of Sgt. Sarver’s West Virginia accent, dialect, expressions, mannerisms, personality, and even dress habits (i.e. rolling his sleeves in the exact same manner as Sarver); succinctly stated, Renner acts and behaves just like Plaintiff5 throughout the movie;

Same Military & Family Background – Just like Plaintiff, character “Will James” is a former Army Ranger who has a young son who lives with his ex-wife back home; Renner is also referenced as a “red neck” and “trailer trash”;

Same EOD Missions – Most of the EOD missions depicted in the movie are identical to Plaintiff’s, including the same camps where the EOD team was based (ie Camp Victory), and the same manner in which they were handled – as documented in the Playboy Article;

[…]

Renner struggles with personal, family relationships just like, and in the same manner as, Plaintiff;

Renner drinking alcohol after successful missions;

Renner setting the record for the most IEDs disarmed by any single soldier;

As THR, Esq. notes,

According to legal experts on this topic, Sarver will need to overcome First Amendment protections that give broad protections on speech. Just putting someone’s life story up on screen may not be enough.

Sarver’s claims may be stronger if he, himself, had written about his experience in Iraq. Had Sarver written about his war stories, he might have been able to pursue a copyright claim that producers of “Hurt Locker” had violated his expression.

Sarver’s best case may actually be if producers of “Hurt Locker” got things wrong. Potentially, Sarver could claim that “Will James” is just a thinly veiled depiction of him, but that they had put him in false light and defamed him with dishonest treatment about his character. We have seen these types of “libel-in-fiction” claims come up recently.

Hence, the complaint continues:

Though the movie clings to the plaintiff’s likeness and personal circumstances throughout the movie, Plaintiff is also defamed in placed in a false light in several scenes, such as (1) the scene where Plaintiff explains to his young son that he essentially does not love him, and that the only thing plaintiff loves now is “war”. The movie ends by showing Plaintiff back in Iraq, starting another deployment mission; and (2) the portrayal of Plaintiff as a reckless, gung-ho war addict who has a morbid fascination with death which causes him to carelessly risk both his and his colleagues’ lives in the theater of war, simply to feel the thrill of cheating death.

The Complaint alleges seven counts:

  • Misappropriation of Name & Likeness
  • False Light Invasion of Privacy
  • Defamation
  • Breach of Contract
  • Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
  • Fraud
  • Negligent Misrepresentation

As far as I can tell, Sgt. Sarver will have little trouble meeting most of the elements of misappropriation, with one exception:

In order that there may be liability under the rule stated in this Section, the defendant must have appropriated to his own use or benefit the reputation, prestige, social or commercial standing, public interest or other values of the plaintiff’s name or likeness. It is not enough that the defendant has adopted for himself a name that is the same as that of the plaintiff, so long as he does not pass himself off as the plaintiff or otherwise seek to obtain for himself the values or benefits of the plaintiff’s name or identity. Unless there is such an appropriation, the defendant is free to call himself by any name he likes, whether there is only one person or a thousand others of the same name. Until the value of the name has in some way been appropriated, there is no tort.

Restatement of the Law, Second, Torts, § 652, cmt c (emphases added); see Jeffries v. Whitney E. Houston Acad. P.T.A., 2009 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1895, at *9 (App. Div. Jul. 20, 2009)(“the purpose of an appropriation of likeness claim is to vindicate the property interest the plaintiff has in his or her name or likeness.”). Misappropriation claims typically arise from false endorsements; here, however, Sarver certainly was not represented as directly endorsing the film. The challenge for his lawyers will be arguing that the use of his life story is sufficient “likeness” that it constitutes a de facto endorsement of the story.

False light and defamation are highly similar claims, and often analyzed together. As THR, Esq. said, there’s precedent out there for “libel-in-fiction,” and Sgt. Sarver’s case seems similar to the The Red Hat Club case linked above: taking an already incredible, but nonetheless real, story and scandalizing it some more. It’s a little bit harder for Sgt. Sarver here, though, since it seems that anyone who recognized him from the film would also know the differences between him and the character, and the complaint admits that he already had substantial family troubles and that he broke military regulations, such as drinking after missions. Those issues, however, are typically issues for a jury, not a judge, to decide.

The remaining claims are intriguing, though none are a good fit to the facts. Regarding breach of contract, it doesn’t appear that Sgt. Sarver was an intended third-party beneficiary to Boal’s “embedding” agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense, though he might be an implied third-party beneficiary. Without the contract in hand, it’s hard to say what will happen here. (One of the commentators at THR, Esq., linked to some of the Department of Defense embedding guidelines, which don’t seem to be as strict as the complaint implies.)

The intentional infliction of emotional distress claim will likely go nowhere. The complaint essentially admits there’s no evidence the producers of the film intended to cause Sgt. Sarver harm. See Ortiz v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29274, at *15–16 (D.N.J. Nov. 22, 2005)(“To sustain such a claim, the conduct at issue must be ‘so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”).

Similarly, the fraud and negligent misrepresentations claims will likely be dismissed. Most courts require some degree of explicit economic loss for these claims. McClellan v. Feit, 376 N.J. Super. 305, 313, 870 A.2d 644, 648 (App. Div. 2005)(“Negligent misrepresentation constitutes an incorrect statement, negligently made and justifiably relied on, which results in economic loss.”). It might be morally wrong to trick someone into revealing their personal story, but it’s not legally compensable as fraud or misrepresentation unless they’re also tricked out of some money.

An interesting case to watch. Depending on Sgt. Sarver’s goals / demands, I’d expect a somewhat prompt settlement, though perhaps not until after the inevitable motion to dismiss is decided.

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* If you haven’t yet read the profile of Roger Ebert in this month’s Esquire, stop whatever else you’re doing and read it now.

  • Max,
    Yet another interesting post, but the real gem was sharing the profile on Roger Ebert. I have been reading a bit about his plight on his blog, but the esquire story is riveting. Ebert’s reply back is good too, http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/02/roger_eberts_last_words_cont.html

  • Please pay the soldier who was identified in Iraq for the book and movie The Hurt Locker. He should receive royalties if the story is really about his experience. Did he ever Know that the writer who was embedded with him intended to write a book? If he din’t reveal that to the soldier I believe he should get some compensation.

  • Martin L. Hughes

    Well, now Voltage pictures is going around taking their frustrations out on every teenage downloader they can with trivial lawsuits. Read more about this here: Voltage pictures Hurt Locker lawsuit