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Three Cups of Tea Lawsuit: Can Readers Sue an Author for Lying?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on May 18, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Author and philanthropist Greg Mortenson beat a fraud lawsuit over his best-selling book Three Cups of Tea last month in federal court, but the plaintiffs in the case aren't finished. Thursday, attorneys for Mortenson's riled-up readers in Montana and California filed a notice of appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, reports The Associated Press.

The plaintiffs claim that Mortenson intentionally made up facts to drive books sales and donations to his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). Specifically, they have accused Mortenson, (along with CAI, co-author David Oliver Relin, and Penguin Group), of racketeering, fraud, deceit, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment, reports Outside.

In Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson explains how a failed attempt to climb the world's second-tallest mountain led him to Korphe, a Pakistani village where he promised local children that he would build a school. The experience inspired his mission to build schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Last year, 60 Minutes broadcast a story questioning Mortenson's claims in the book and CAI's financial practices. Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, told 60 Minutes that CAI spent more on domestic outreach programs for Mortenson to speak about building schools than it actually spent on building schools. The report spawned investigations and the Three Cups of Tea lawsuits.

Plaintiffs are now looking to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate a lawsuit challenging the veracity of Mortenson's claims in the book. They allege that they suffered a financial loss when they paid full price for a nonfiction book that they now believe is fiction.

In April, however, U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon dismissed the "overly-broad" complaints, noting that the lawsuit did not state -- and it was impossible to ascertain -- whether plaintiffs would have purchased the Mortenson's book if it had been labeled or marketed as fiction, or if readers knew that portions of the book were fabricated, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea isn't the only memoir plagued by falsification claims in recent years. James Frey had a similar fall from grace -- and by grace, we mean Oprah Winfrey's esteem -- after admitting that he embellished many of the claims in his Oprah-endorsed book, A Million Little Pieces.

Should the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals allow readers to sue a self-described nonfiction author who takes creative license with the truth, or are literary fraud complaints, like the Three Cups of Tea lawsuit, a waste of judicial resources?

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