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06.09.11

More Trouble for Greg Mortenson

The author of Three Cups of Tea faces another lawsuit over his bestselling book. Mike Giglio reports.

Bestselling author Greg Mortenson is facing another lawsuit filed over his memoir, Three Cups of Tea

The suit, which was filed yesterday in federal court in Chicago and first reported by Courthouse News Service, names Mortenson, his co-author, David Oliver Relin, and Penguin, publisher of the book. The suit claims that Mortenson, “captured the hearts and minds of Plaintiff and book lovers nationwide, duping them into buying Three Cups of Tea.”

Mortenson – a feted philanthropist who had earned millions on a book about his own daring do and good works in Pakistan – lost his status as a national humanitarian hero when author Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes challenged the veracity of key anecdotes in the book. Mortenson has been in seclusion since, citing ailing health. As the Daily Beast reported exclusively on Tuesday, Mortenson underwent open heart surgery last week. 

“There is money to be had when the right kind of book scandal comes along.”

A spokesperson for Mortenson reached by phone today declined to comment on the latest suit. Relin’s agent could not immediately be reached for comment. And a spokesperson for Penguin said the publisher had nothing to add to what they told the Daily Beast regarding Mortenson this week: “When he’s fully recovered we will address any changes he feels need to be made [to his memoir].”

Walter Olson, a legal scholar and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, says a rash of likeminded suits will likely follow. “When something looks juicy you get firms effectively competing with each other,” he says, adding that lawyers are likely elbowing for timeliness and publicity to boost their standing on the case in the event  that the suits are later consolidated. “It gets to be sharp-elbowed maneuvering. And the maneuvering starts before the lawyers even meet each other.”

Olson says the class action suit over James Frey’s infamous memoir, A Million Little Pieces, got lawyers paying attention to high-profile non-fiction books. “The financial success confirmed that there is money to be had when the right kind of book scandal comes along.” Random House, the publisher, had agreed to settle the case for up to $2.35 million, though only 1,700 people ended up asking to be reimbursed for book purchases. Olson points out that legal fees in the case totaled $783,000.

In fact, one of the two attorneys who filed this week’s suit, Larry D. Drury, was lead counsel in the Frey suit. Drury, a veteran class action lawyer who has been involved in a number of high-profile cases, points out that while Frey had admitted to inaccuracies in his memoir, Mortenson has yet to concede any. But, he adds, “Both of the books were sold and represented as memoirs, and being factual. And it turns out—at least the allegations [by 60 Minutes and Krakauer] are—that it’s not factual.”

Last month, The Daily Beast reported on a separate lawsuit against Mortenson seeking class-action status filed by a personal injury attorney in Montana state court

Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified Drury and his co-counsel on this suit, Robert A. Langendorf, as personal injury attorneys. Drury concentrates on class action law, while Langendorf practices in both personal injury and class action law.

Mike Giglio is a reporter at Newsweek.