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Cast in a Bad Light: A Documentary Star’s Defamation Claims

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The award-winning documentary The Queen of Versailles chronicles the extraordinary, “rags-to-riches-to-rags” tale of timeshare baron David Siegel’s super-mansion.  Siegel’s company went on the offensive against the documentary’s filmmakers after an unexpected change in the film’s direction.  This month, an arbitrator for the Independent Film and Television Alliance has cut to the chase, putting an end to the years-long legal crusade.

A person’s reputation can be worth its weight in gold.  How can a documentary star respond when the story takes an unexpected turn?  

Siegel amassed his wealth as founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts, one of the largest privately owned timeshare companies in the world.  At the height of his career in 2007, Siegel commissioned his “Palace of Versailles,” a $75 million, 90,000-square-foot mansion in Windermere, Florida.  With 30 bedrooms, a 30-car garage and its own bowling alley, roller skating rink and theater, the house would be the largest in America.  However, the mogul shelved the construction project when he was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis.  While Siegel was a billionaire before the crisis, his wealth is now estimated to be reduced to the hundreds of millions.

Originally, filmmaker Lauren Greenfield intended to explore the lifestyle of the super-wealthy family and document the construction of their “palace.”  However, after Siegel’s finances took a turn, so did the documentary, focusing on the financial hardships the family faced following the 2008 crisis.  The film describes the family as a “rags-to-riches-to-rags” story.

Since the documentary’s release, Westgate has rebounded.  The Siegels have avoided foreclosure and resumed construction on the enormous house.  After filing ineffective defamation lawsuits in both Orlando and Los Angeles, Westgate commenced arbitration with the filmmakers.  Entertainment lawyer Roy Rifkin was appointed as the arbitrator for the matter.

With elements very similar to a New York defamation claim, the arbitrator outlined the requirements of a successful action in California: “(a) a publication that is (b) false, (c) defamatory, (d) unprivileged, and (e) has a natural tendency to injure or that causes special damage.”  The second element was of particular importance to Rifkin, who found that none of the material in the film was false.  “There is nothing taken away by the viewer of the Motion Picture that is inconsistent with the fundamental reality that the global recession created a crisis for Westgate,” explained Rifkin, “causing it to have to reluctantly give up its interest in PH Towers.”

After exploring Westgate’s additional claims, Rifkin dismissed the matter entirely and awarded $750,000 in attorney’s fees to the filmmakers.

The Queen of Versailles should serve as a cautionary tale for those featured in documentaries.  Before participating in any film or TV project, consider the impact it could have on your reputation.  Perhaps most importantly, remember that truth is a complete defense to a defamation claim.

Keep in mind: It’s hard to successfully sue if the underlying facts are true.

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