Cast and crew saying or implying that War Dogs is a “true story” is enough to keep a false advertisement lawsuit against Warner Bros. alive, a Florida federal judge ruled Wednesday.
Efraim Diveroli, a former arms dealer portrayed by Jonah Hill in the 2016 film, is suing Warners for false advertising and unfair competition, among other claims.
Instead of optioning Diveroli’s manuscript, Once a Gun Runner, Warner Bros. enlisted Guy Lawson, a Rolling Stone writer who had interviewed him in prison and written a magazine feature that was expanded into a book. The ex-con takes issue with how he was portrayed and how the film was promoted.
“The gravamen of the Amended Complaint is that Warner grossed more than $85 million by promoting War Dogs as Diveroli’s ‘true story’ when it was not the true story,” writes U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven. “The Amended Complaint identifies a number of allegedly false advertisements, including statements in movie trailers, social media posts, and promotional interviews with War Dogs’ director, Todd Phillips, screenwriter Stephen Chin, and stars Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, and Bradley Cooper.”
Warners, meanwhile, argued that the statements regarding the truth of the story aren’t actionable because they’re protected by the First Amendment.
Scriven found that Diveroli plausibly alleged in his amended complaint that the comments are “commercial speech” and therefore subject to the Lanham Act, which prohibits false advertising in connection with commercial advertising or promotion. The judge found that the statements were promotional, referred to a specific product and that Warners had an economic motivation for making them.
“Warner knew that representing the story as ‘true’ would induce consumers to see War Dogs,” writes Scriven. “Although movies are works of artistic expression and must be protected, ‘they are also sold in the commercial marketplace like other more utilitarian products, making the danger of consumer deception a legitimate concern that warrants some government regulation.'”
The studio also argued that Diveroli failed to allege facts necessary to state a false advertising claim, but Scriven disagrees, noting that, while Warner Bros. is right to insist the statements be considered in their full context, the argument is not well-suited to a motion to dismiss.
“[A]part from advancing that argument, Warner neglects to address the relevant question: whether the statements, read in their full context, falsely or misleadingly portray War Dogs as a true story,” writes Scriven. “Warner implies that they do not, but that conclusion calls for a fact-intensive inquiry and that the Court draw inferences in Warner’s favor, neither of which is appropriate on a motion to dismiss.”
The decision isn’t a total loss for the studio, though. The judge found that allegations involving the War Dogs website and Facebook page and comments Lawson made while promoting his own book “are not, in and of themselves, actionable.” (The full order is posted below.)