Leon Uris was a prolific author, known for his focus on dramatic moments in contemporary history, including World War II and the Cold War. His best-selling, entertaining, and imaginative novel Exodus (1958) has been translated into over fifty languages and has helped shape our collective understanding of the birth of modern Israel. His novel also, rather unintentionally, gave rise to the seminal defamation case Dering v. Uris, which took place in London in 1964.
The defamation case was born from a throwaway line contained in the backstory of one of the main characters in Exodus, Holocaust survivor Dov Landau:
Here in block X, Dr. Wirths used women as guinea pigs and Dr. Schumann sterilized by castration and X-ray and Clauberg removed ovaries and Dr. Dehring [sic] performed 17,000 experiments in surgery without anesthetics.
After Dr. Wladislaw Dering read this passage, he sued Leon Uris, the publisher, and the printer for defamation. While Dr. Dering admitted that he had performed unspeakable operations on Holocaust victims in Auschwitz during World War II, he argued that he had performed nowhere near 17,000 and that he never did so without anesthetic.
At the end of the closely followed and highly politicized trial, the jury found for Dr. Dering, awarding him “the smallest coin of the realm,” or one-half penny, in damages.
The court later assessed $30,000 pounds against Dr. Dering for the costs of the trial. Leon Uris was so fascinated by his experience that he novelized it in the best-selling novel QB VII or Queen’s Bench Courtroom Number Seven. The media coverage and subsequent novelization of Dering v. Uris cemented Dr. Dering’s infamous reputation as a Nazi sympathizer and war criminal, which was exactly the outcome that Dr. Dering wanted to avoid.
Our courts have produced similar outcomes. Here, if a defendant is found liable, but there are no damages arising from that liability, the court will generally instruct the jury to award “Nominal Damages”, in the amount of one dollar, to the plaintiff.
The lesson? When considering whether to file a claim, both liability and damages must be taken into account to avoid having a similar tale unfold in your courtroom.