Sparks were not flying in court on Wednesday, August 14th, 2019, as novelist Nicholas Sparks took the stand during trial for a defamation lawsuit filed against him by the former headmaster of a private Christian school. Epiphany School, located in North Carolina, was founded by Sparks. The former headmaster, Saul Benjamin, claims that Sparks told Epiphany School parents and others that Benjamin suffered from mental illness, according to WRAL.com.
Benjamin’s lawsuit alleges that he was forced out of his headmaster position because Sparks and members of the school board didn’t agree with his views on diversity.
Benjamin held the position for less than five months and claims that he became concerned with the school’s lack of diversity as soon as he took the position. He addressed these concerns with Sparks in a series of email exchanges. Some of Benjamin’s concerns included the lack of African-American students in the student body as well the bullying of gay students.
Benjamin alleges that Sparks disagreed and did not like his idea of creating a support group for students, according to WRAL.com.
In a quote published by WRAL.com, Benjamin’s attorney said, “There is an extensive record of emails in this case – many, if not most, of which were written by Nicholas Sparks himself – and we think they paint a contrasting picture to a lot of his other writings.”
Not only does Benjamin claim that Sparks defamed him by telling people he has a mental illness, he also claims that he is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA is a civil rights law that protects Americans with disabilities against discrimination in all areas of public life, including jobs.
So, should Sparks prepare himself for a tragedy or hold out hope that love [stories] always win?
In order to win a defamation lawsuit in North Carolina, “plaintiffs must allege and prove that the defendant made false, defamatory statements of or concerning the plaintiff, which were published to a third person, causing injury to the plaintiff's reputation.” [Tyson v. L'eggs Products, Inc., 84 N.C.App. 1, 10–11, 351 S.E.2d 834, 840 (1987)]
Now, here’s where this case gets tricky. Benjamin would need to prove that Sparks was lying when he told people that Benjamin had a mental illness. This might be difficult because Benjamin is also claiming that Sparks is in violation of the ADA. If Benjamin does have a mental illness, he may not be able to prove Sparks defamed him because technically that statement would be true. Truth is an absolute defense for defamation claims (Holleman v. Aiken, 193 N.C.App. 484, 668 S.E.2d 579 (2008). Boyce & Isley, PLLC v. Cooper, 211 N.C. App. 469, 478, 710 S.E.2d 309, 317 (2011))
This case is expected to last until next Wednesday, August 21st, 2019, according to WRAL.com. Stay tuned for details.
[UPDATE]: On Wednesday August 21st 2019, a jury sided with Nicholas Sparks on all counts of defamation.
In a quote published by ABC11, Sparks said after the verdict, “I am grateful for the jury's verdict in favor of myself, the Epiphany School and the Nicholas Sparks Foundation. The verdict speaks volumes, and completely rejects the campaign waged by Mr. Benjamin and his lawyers in an attempt to discredit Epiphany and me. As my testimony made clear, I have always been personally supportive of gay rights, gay marriage, and gay adoption. Further, Epiphany is and remains a place where students and faculty of any race, belief, religion, background, or orientation should feel welcome. My commitment to these values, as well as Epiphany's commitment to these values, have been and remain constant. I look forward to getting back to writing full time, and I thank my family, friends, and readers for their support."
ABC11 also reports that Sparks claims Benjamin voluntarily chose to resign, instead of being terminated, as the lawsuit claims.
Benjamin and his legal team plan to look into appealing this decision, according to ABC11.
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