'Out of the Furnace' Movie Poster
‘Out of the Furnace’ Movie Poster ()

A federal judge in New Jersey has dismissed a defamation suit by members of the Ramapough Mountain Indians who claimed their tribe was falsely portrayed in a recent film as lawless, violent, impoverished and drug-addicted inbreeds.

The 17 plaintiffs were not specifically mentioned in the film, “Out of the Furnace,” and the tribe, based in New Jersey and New York, failed to show their case is entitled to an exception to the doctrine of group libel, U.S. District Judge William Walls ruled in DeGroat v. Cooper.

The film, released last December, depicts a group called the “Jackson Whites,” which the plaintiffs alleged is an ethnic slur historically used to refer to the Ramapoughs, and is “easily recognizable” as about them.

The film stars Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson. The plot concerns the efforts of Bale’s character to protect his younger brother, played by Affleck, who clashes with a criminal gang that is led by Harrelson’s character.

Characters in the movie ride around in ATVs, a common means of transportation among Ramapoughs living in the mountains, and the movie refers to Harrelson’s gang as “inbreds” who live in a “whole ‘nother world” with their “own breed of justice,” the suit claimed.

Harrelson’s character has the surname DeGroat, and another character’s last name is Van Dunk; both are common names among the Ramapough. The plaintiffs include eight DeGroats and two Van Dunks.

The complaint, filed in December, included counts of false light defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiffs claimed that the movie caused them shame and humiliation and that their children were teased and harassed in school.

The complaint sought $50 million in damages and named as defendants writer-director Scott Cooper, writer Brad Inglesby, distributor Relativity Media, and two production companies.

Walls said the claims failed because the statements complained of were not “of and concerning” the specific plaintiffs, a requirement under New Jersey law and the laws of New York and Tennessee, where some plaintiffs live, and California, where the defendants are based. The plaintiffs acknowledged that they are not specifically depicted in the movie, he said.

The plaintiffs sought to invoke an exception from the group-libel doctrine, which generally precludes a group or its members from claiming injury from defamatory references to a large number of people.

Walls said the plaintiffs’ pleadings were insufficient to support an exception, since no allegations were made about how many Ramapoughs there are, let alone the number of that group named DeGroat or Van Dunk. He said the plaintiffs’ assertions that those surnames are common among Ramapoughs undermine their request for that exception.

“The court would find it surprising if the Ramapoughs, recognized by the states of New York and New Jersey and living in several communities in each state, could qualify as ‘small’ under the exception to the group libel doctrine,” Walls said.

Under Restatement (Second) of Torts, sec. 564A, comment b, there is no definitive limit for the size of a group entitled to an exception but “the cases in which recovery has been allowed usually have involved numbers of 25 or fewer,” Walls said.

Plaintiff lawyer Lydia Cotz reacted to the ruling in an email message, saying, “We…are disappointed that the court did not view my clients’ perspective as meritorious; but we are pleased that this litigation let the makers of this film, as well as the region in general, know that there are contrary views about this community’s character and values.”

Carol Genis of K&L Gates in Chicago, representing defendant Relativity Media, said, “We are pleased that the court upheld our client’s right of free speech in the context of this purely fictional film. It is a victory for all filmmakers and artists.”

A second suit was filed in January by a different group of Ramapough plaintiffs. That suit also bears the caption DeGroat v. Cooper and is similar to the first in its allegations but adds other defendants, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott, who were producers. The second suit also names the New York Post as a defendant, citing a review the newspaper printed about the movie. Walls stayed proceedings in the second suit on April 14, pending the outcome of the defense motion to dismiss the first case.

Tiffany Burress of Dario, Yacker, Suarez & Albert in Hackensack, the plaintiff lawyer who filed the second suit, did not return a call Thursday.

Genis, representing Relativity Media, said, “We are confident that the second lawsuit will be dismissed,” noting that its allegations are “virtually identical” to the first case. n

Contact the reporter at ctoutant@alm.com.