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'Three Cups of Tea' author Greg Mortenson battles a civil lawsuit

Are readers who bought 'Three Cups of Tea' entitled to compensation?

By Husna Haq / April 18, 2012

Two weeks after agreeing to a $1 million deal to settle allegations that he mishandled charitable contributions, “Three Cups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson is back in federal court this week – this time to face a civil lawsuit.

New Mark Communications via the AP

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Fresh off a $1 million deal with the Montana Attorney General’s office to settle allegations that he mishandled his charity’s money, “Three Cups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson is back in federal court Wednesday to fight a civil lawsuit that claims that he fabricated parts of his bestselling memoirs.

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The lawsuit, filed by four individuals from California, Montana, and Illinois, lists more than two dozen alleged fabrications. Defendants include Mortenson, publisher Penguin Group, co-author David Oliver Relin, and the Central Asia Institute.

In his bestselling “Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson recounts a failed attempt to climb K2, being nursed back to health by a poor Pakistani village in the Himalayan foothills, and his resolution to build schools in that impoverished region. “Three Cups of Tea,” and later, “Stones Into Schools,” were conceived of as storytelling and fundraising vehicles for Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute charity, for which Mortenson collected tens of millions of dollars. 

Much of the money was mishandled, as a Montana Attorney General’s office investigation revealed, and Mortenson resigned as executive director of the charity and will repay $1 million in misappropriated funds. The settlement does not address the contents of Mortenson’s books.

Now a group of disgruntled readers are pursuing a civil suit against the author. They claim he presented fabricated stories as fact in order to trick readers into buying his books and donating to his charity. The suit accuses Mortenson and his co-defendants of racketeering, fraud, deceit, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment. Plaintiffs are seeking triple the amount of total book sales, plus punitive damages. It is also asking the judge to order that everyone who bought Mortenson’s books be refunded.

First Amendment expert and general counsel of the First Amendment Lawyers Association Wayne Giampietro calls those claims absurd, reports the AP

“It’s his story. It purports to be his experiences. He can say it any way he wants to say. He has the right to publish anything he wants about himself,” Giampietro said. “The idea that you can be sued because perhaps they don’t like what you wrote, for whatever reason, is absurd.” 

Not surprisingly, lawyers for Mortenson and Penguin Group are asking Judge Sam Haddon to dismiss the lawsuit. 

What do you think? Should Mortenson and Penguin pay? Or is time to move on? 

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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