Lifetime Just Won a Big Lawsuit

Lifetime

Lifetime Television scored a big win over a lawsuit that claimed a 2013 movie was too fictionalized. A judge ruled that the movie “Romeo Killer” was “broadly accurate” and made it clear that parts of the movie were dramatizations.


The Lawsuit Claimed the Biopic, ‘Romeo Killer,’ Was Too Fictionalized

Lifetime Television’s airing of “Romeo Killer: The Christopher Porco Story” was halted in 2013 by a New York judge when Christopher Porco claimed the movie was overly fictionalized, The Hollywood Reporter reported. An emergency appeal lifted the injunction, but a dismissal was then overturned by the New York appeals court in 2017. The court determined that it was possible for Porco to show the film still had “too much fictionalization” to qualify as newsworthy.

Justice Molly Reynolds Fitzgerald later ruled in Lifetime’s favor in late June 2021. You can read the full opinion here.

Porco had been convicted of murdering his father and attempting to murder his mother, Joan Porco. The movie depicted those events along with the trial. According to the court opinion, Lifetime had argued that First Amendment rights protected them and they could make the movie without Porco’s permission because it was newsworthy. In New York, newsworthy is a broad terminology applying not just to the events themselves that are of public interest, but to social trends or other subjects of public interest.

Fitzgerald explained that in order to win, Porco must prove that the movie was, essentially, so fictitious that it amounted to an “all-pervasive use of imaginary incidents.” The newsworthy exception isn’t met if the content is “substantially fictionalized” and doesn’t serve a public interest.

The lawsuit argued that Lifetime’s movie depicted the plaintiffs in a way that was “materially and substantially fictitious,” while claiming that it was an accurate depiction. To determine if Lifetime was protected, the court reviewed the entire movie along with proof of the underlying facts. Ultimately, the court decided that Lifetime was upfront about the movie being dramatized, and the overall story was still largely based on facts that were in the public’s interest. So the court found in Lifetime’s favor.

Fitzgerald wrote:

A review of those materials confirms that the film is a dramatization that at times departed from actual events, including by recreating dialogue and scenes, using techniques such as flashbacks and staged interviews, giving fictional names to some individuals and replacing others altogether with composite characters. The film nevertheless presents a broadly accurate depiction of the crime, the ensuing criminal investigation and the trial that are matters of public interest.

More importantly, the film makes no [*5] effort to present itself as unalloyed truth or claim that its depiction of plaintiffs was entirely accurate, instead alerting the viewer at the outset that it is only “[b]ased on a true story” and reiterating at the end that it is “a dramatization” in which “some names have been changed, some characters are composites and certain other characters and events have been fictionalized.” In our view, the foregoing satisfied defendant’s initial burden of showing that the film addressed matters of public interest through a blend of fact and fiction that was readily acknowledged, did not mislead viewers into believing that its related depictions of plaintiffs was true and was not, as a result, “so infected with fiction, dramatization or embellishment that it cannot be said to fulfill the purpose of the newsworthiness exception.”

The judge went on to note that plaintiffs complained that some depictions were inaccurate and even offensive to them. However, the judge said the film made it clear that it was a dramatization. In the end, the judge found in favor of Lifetime and that the movie was not too fictionalized to be protected by New York’s “newsworthy” exception.

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