The lawsuit brought by the family of a deceased man at the heart of the podcast S-Town is heading for mediation, nearly two years after it was first filed in federal court in Alabama. At issue is whether the podcast, which was downloaded more than 92.5 million times, violated Alabama’s right of privacy law.
WIAT-TV reports U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler this month ordered attorneys representing the family and Serial Productions, This American Life, Chicago Public Media and S-Town producer and host Brian Reed, to try to resolve the lawsuit in front of a court-appointed mediator. The move isn’t unusual in civil suits and is often required in federal court as a way to avoid a lengthy legal battle tying up the courts. If no agreement can be reached, the case is scheduled to go to trial in January 2021.
The lawsuit against the podcast producers was filed in July 2018 by the estate of John McLemore. Producer and host Brian Reed emailed the staff of This American Life in 2012 asking they investigate a suspected murder in his hometown of Woodstock, AL. McLemore struck up a rapport with Reed, and after several emails and telephone calls he traveled to Woodstock to investigate the allegations. There Reed interviewed McLemore and several others in Bibb County, AL. The result was the seven-episode series S-Town.
But what seemed like a regular true crime podcast quickly takes an unexpected turn, when in the second episode, Reed concludes that, after his investigation, he believes no murder occurred. That leads to a falling out between Reed and McLemore. The remainder of S-Town focused on McLemore’s life—and death. It moves from exploring McLemore’s sexual orientation and experiences, depressed thoughts, suicidal ideations, financial affairs, physical and mental health issues, as well as instances of self-harm that McLemore is alleged to have undertaken including paying to have his nipples tattooed with an empty needle. The show also included what the court says were details about his 2015 suicide.
In a ruling last March, the Alabama court rejected an attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed. Judge Scott Coogler wrote in a 10-page decision that he believed there was enough of a question to proceed with a case with the right of privacy law at its center. But S-Town’s producers are angling to fight the case on First Amendment grounds. In an earlier motion it said S-Town is “specifically exempted” from the Alabama state law since it is a “public interest documentary work” and “an expressive and artistic work.”
If it wins, McLemore’s estate is seeking the profits made by S-Town’s producers as well as additional unspecified compensatory damages. They also want the court to block S-Town’s backers from moving forward with their deal to make the podcast into a film, a decision that could be even more costly.
S-Town won a Peabody award in 2017.