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The Son of the 'Godmother of Cocaine' Sues Over Netflix Show 'Griselda'

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

Remember the '80s? Netflix sure likes to, capitalizing on '80s nostalgia with hit shows like 'Stranger Things,' 'Glow,' and 'Narcos' — because we're nostalgic even for the less desirable aspects of the decade such as leg warmers and cocaine, apparently.

Netflix Sticks With Winning Formula

By now most of us know about Pablo Escobar, the drug trafficker of Medellin fame. He has been popularized in numerous television and movie stories, most recently with Netflix's hit show 'Narcos', mentioned above. But the other biggest drug kingpin of the '80s could be Griselda Blanco, who ran her own drug trafficking cartel to astonishing success. Netflix, with its new show 'Griselda,' is hoping for similar success in a fictionalized retelling of her life story.

Known as the "Godmother of Cocaine" or the "Black Widow" because of the suspicious deaths of her three husbands, Griselda Blanco went from impoverished on the streets of Cartagena, Colombia, to a drug lord smuggling an estimated $2.5 million worth of cocaine into the U.S. every week ($15 million in today's dollars). She left a trail of bodies in her wake, from rival cartel members to husbands, and even to people she owed a debt to. As ruthless as they came, she was also considered charming but never hesitated to use her enforcers to commit atrocities.

There's plenty there for a story, which is probably why it's already been done several times. Catherine Zeta-Jones most recently played her in a Lifetime movie in 2019. But Netflix has more of the "true" story, according to Griselda's son. That is because he pitched story ideas with two partners around 2009, seeking to turn personal anecdotes and knowledge into a book deal or a Spanish soap opera. Now, he claims in a lawsuit that his partners told Netflix these stories, and Netflix took them without compensation or recognition.

A Public Figure

Blanco's son, Michael, is not suing to prohibit Netflix from telling the story at all. This is because Griselda Blanco is a public figure. Fictionalized stories of public figures are legal without express permission, although there are rules about using public figures for commercial uses (more on that below).

Instead, Michael argues that Netflix owes him a cut because they are using his material. Michael's attorney, Elysa Galloway, said in a statement to Rolling Stone that the lawsuit boils down to Netflix/Latin World Entertainment "exploiting" Michael Blanco's work and literary ideas without compensation. He argues these stories were not public knowledge. Most of what we know of Griselda Blanco's life comes secondhand, as she managed to avoid a lot of publicity during her lifetime.

Netflix has not publicly responded to the lawsuit but has advertised the show as a fictionalized drama, not a biopic about Griselda. Michael sought an injunction to delay the premier of the series on Netflix, but so far the show is scheduled to air on Thursday, January 25.

Public figures tend to have fewer legal protections than others. For example, it is harder for a public figure to sue for defamation. The same is true for otherwise potentially copyrighted material. For example, if you wanted you could write an "alternate history" novel in which a different set of events or actions involving a famous person turned out differently than it did in real life (this is the premise behind the Apple TV+ show "For All Mankind"). But that doesn't mean you have carte blanche. There are still some legal pitfalls to avoid.

Defamation is still a concern when telling the life story of a public figure. It needs to be clear that the story is completely fictional, otherwise anything presented as a fact of that person's life could give rise to a defamation claim.

There are other legal protections to avoid running afoul of. These include:

These claims are fairly straightforward. The right of privacy involves thrusting someone into the spotlight who never wanted to be there. For example, you can't write a tell-all about a good friend's mental health struggles without their permission. The right of publicity, on the other hand, is a legal theory that says people have the right to determine how they present their name and likeness to the public. Finally, a person could sue if you portrayed them in a false light (even in a fictionalized drama) if you acted with actual malice and exposed them to contempt or ridicule.

Keep in mind that these lawsuits are governed by state law, so if you have a question about portraying a public figure in a fictionalized way, you may want to speak to an attorney to discuss options. Particularly for non-celebrities, these options could include purchasing the life rights of the person you are portraying.

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