Legal force of "Any resemblance...purely concidental"?

You’ve all seen the disclaimer in works of fiction. Does it have any legal force? I just read a book that took place in my home town. When I read the first chapter, a certain police chief angling to become mayor was mentioned. Well that was quite obviously a certain F. R. who was police chief and later became mayor. It was totally obvious to me and even to my wife who had never lived there, but heard me mention him. He’s dead now, but could his heirs sue for defamation?

On your main question, it’s something I’ve always wondered about but have never looked into, so no idea.

But on your second question, no, the heirs can’t sue. Your reputation is personal to you, and dies with you. No one else can suffer any damage from people saying bad things about the deceased.

It may be different if the person has brought an action for defamation and dies while it’s in the court system. Some jurisdictions may allow the action to proceed, especially if the heirs can show the deceased suffered a fiscal loss during his lifetime as a result of the defamation (eg lost business because people boycotted his business as a result of the defamatory statements).

We had a lengthy thread on that issue last year when the Oberlin College matter was in the news. The grandfather who had a share in the business won a defamation claim against the College. What happens if he dies while the College’s appeal is pending? Dunno, was the consensus. Depends on how state law handles it.

How would you prove it wasn’t purely coincidental? Does the author live in your home town? Do you know that the author knew about this person? Is the person defamed in the book? If you mention a character that is based on the life of a real person I don’t think that means you have defamed that real person.

So the author can’t create fiction about your town that has a police chief angling to become mayor? Where is the line for resemblance? If the police chief was a middle aged man must the character now be a young or old woman so as not to resemble the real person?

Here’s a decent Wiki article on disclaimers. Note in the “Effectiveness” section films with the disclaimer still get sued, and on occasion succeed.

Did that particular book have a “purely coincidental” disclaimer?

In the case you describe, it sounds to me like the book character was probably based on or inspired by the real person, so the resemblance wasn’t “purely coincidental”—but that doesn’t mean that the book character was the real-life person, and readers have no right to infer that everything that was true about the character in the book was also true about the real-life person.

The book certainly did have the ritual disclaimer. And there were enough details about the guy in question (like that he was a crook on the make) to make it perfectly obvious who it was. The amount of detail about the city was in general remarkable. Specific buildings, streets, rail tracks, subways, etc. that the author had to have an intimate knowledge of the city. And no, the author is not from there. He is actually a French Canadian from Montreal who wrote this in fluent English (with a couple of vocabulary lapses). He lives in the same small suburb of Montreal as I do and I came on the book because he was interviewed in the local town throwaway paper.

You aren’t fooling anyone with your fig leaf about a police chief in another town. It’s perfectly obvious that you are talking about me, and I am going to sue your ass.

Before I steal something I always declare “no actual theft intended in this acquisition”. It protects me from the law.

From what I’ve read, it is one of those blurbs that can still result in you getting sued if someone can convincingly demonstrate that it is just ***too ***true to be coincidental.