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On the Lap of Gods
By Robert Whitaker

nantucket flagLAWSUIT STANDS FOR

In a novel ruling, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Shafer let stand a fifteen million dollar defamation suit brought against Dick Wolf, the creator of the long-running TV series, Law and Order.

Ravi Batra, the New York lawyer who filed the suit, claimed that an episode aired in November, 2003 had libeled him by including an unsavory character, Ravi Patel that was modeled on him.  The defendants in the suit made a motion to dismiss, but the judge ruled that the allegations in the complaint were sufficient to withstand challenge.

The case is proceeding under the theory of “libel-in-fiction,” which means that the plaintiff must show that the identities of the real and fictional characters is so complete that the “defamatory material” becomes a “plausible aspect” of the plaintiff’s real life.  Cases brought under this theory have been uniformly rejected by New York appellate courts in the past, and it is far from certain that this case will survive appellate review.

The plaintiff Ravi Batra was born in India, and became extremely active in Brooklyn politics.  In recent years, there has been a swirl of investigations involving Brooklyn judges and Clarence Norman, Jr., the Brooklyn Democratic leader.   It was reported that Justice Gerald P. Garson agreed to wear a wire to obtain evidence that a seat on the bench could be purchased by making a bribe to the Democratic leader.  Batra was not charged with anything, but his political connections were widely reported in the press, and he served on the Brooklyn Democratic judicial screening committee.

In the Law and Order episode which formed the basis of Batra’s suit, a body is discovered floating in the Hudson River, and this eventually leads to the uncovering of a scandal involving judges.  In the episode, a judge in Brooklyn is shown socializing with a bald Indian-American lawyer, Ravi Patel, and she accepts cash bribes from him.

In their legal papers, the defendants argued that that the similarities between Ravi Batra and the TV character, Ravi Patel, were “abstract.”  However, Batra argued that “because of the uniqueness of his name, ethnicity and appearance,” any viewer watching the show and familiar with the news would identify the character with him.

In most cases based on libel-in fiction, the plaintiff is not able to establish a case because he cannot forge a specific link between the fictitious character and himself.  The defendants are usually clever enough to protect themselves by giving the “fictitious character” a completely different name and different physical appearance.   In the Law and Order case, the similarity in names may have been the decisive factor.  Batra demonstrated to the court that at the time of the episode he was one of only six lawyers in New York with the first name, Ravi, and the only one of the same age and description as the TV character.

According to the New York Times, a spokesman for NBC Universal, a defendant in the suit, issued this statement:  “No character in the Law and Order episode at issue depicts Ravi Batra.  We are confident that when the evidence is considered (which it is not on a motion to dismiss), it will demonstrate that NBC did not defame Mr. Batra.”