A federal judge in Montana dismissed a lawsuit on Monday filed by four readers who charged “Three Cups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson engaged in a massive fraud by claiming his bestselling books were works of nonfiction when some the events in the books are now alleged to be fabrications.
US District Judge Sam Haddon threw the suit out and barred any attempt by the plaintiffs to refile the action.
“The imprecise, in part flimsy, and speculative nature of the claims and theories advanced underscore the necessary conclusion that further amendment [of the complaint] would be futile,” Judge Haddon said.
The judge’s action leaves unresolved what legal recourse, if any, ordinary readers might have against a bestselling author who promotes a fictitious story as fact.
The lawsuit sought to wage a nationwide class-action suit on behalf of millions of readers against Mr. Mortenson, his co-author, David Oliver Relin, his publisher, Penguin Group, and a nonprofit organization he set up to help build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The suit said the author and others engaged in a pattern of racketeering to use fabricated or inflated claims in his books to help portray Mortenson as a hero to boost book sales and increase donations to the author’s nonprofit group, the Central Asia Institute.
Both of Mortenson’s books, “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools,” have been nonfiction bestsellers, earning more than $5 million in revenue. In 2009, he was named a finalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
The complaint said Mortenson and his co-defendants “continued to misrepresent that the contents of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ and ‘Stones Into Schools’ were true, nonfiction accounts of what really happened, when, in fact, the contents were false and the accounts did not happen.”
“The enterprise’s fraudulent scheme was to make Mortenson into a false hero, to sell books representing to contain true events, when they were false, to defraud millions of unsuspecting purchasers out of the purchase price of the books, and to raise millions of dollars in charitable donations for CAI,” the suit says.
Lawyers for the readers had asked Haddon to block all future sales of the books and award readers three times the cover price of the book as well as other unspecified punitive damages.
Earlier this month, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock announced a settlement with Mortenson and CAI in which the author is required to pay $1 million in restitution to his own charity “for his past financial transgressions.”
According to the attorney general, under Mortenson, CAI made bulk purchases of his books at retail prices with charitable funds that were donated to build schools in southwest Asia. At the same time, Mortenson received and kept royalties from those sales.
CAI also used charitable funds to pay expensive advertising costs for the books. Mortenson also accepted travel fees from book event sponsors at the same time CAI was paying all his travel expenses using charitable funds donated to build schools.
The Montana attorney general did not examine the alleged fabrications in Mortenson’s books.
That was the intent of the civil lawsuit.
Among many alleged inaccuracies, the complaint says Mortenson held himself out as a selfless humanitarian who visited Mother Teresa’s place of rest after she died. He supposedly knelt by her body, held her hand in his own and contemplated how similar the two were.
The touching scene reportedly took place in September 2000. According to the lawsuit, Mother Teresa died three years earlier.
The best known alleged fabrication in “Three Cups of Tea” involves the story of how Mortenson was rescued and nursed to health by residents in the Pakistani village of Korphe after a near-disastrous attempt to scale the mountain K2. The grateful mountaineer promised to repay the villagers by building a school.
According to the lawsuit and others who have investigated the veracity of the books, Mortenson had promised to build a school in a different village, Khane. But this account includes nothing of the drama of being lost or rescued by villagers. The promise to build a school in Khane is contained in an article Mortenson wrote for the American Himalayan Foundation many years before his book was written.
In dismissing the complaint, Haddon said the plaintiffs had failed to offer enough evidence of a pattern of fraud to justify the legal action.
“Plaintiffs assert they suffered concrete financial loss when they paid full price for a nonfiction book when it was fiction,” he said.
"The complaint does not state, nor is it possible to ascertain, whether plaintiffs would have purchased the books if: (1) the books were labeled or marketed as fiction; or (2) the readers knew portions of the books, as claimed, were fabricated,” he said.
“Plaintiffs’ overly broad statements that they paid approximately $15 for the books because they were represented as true does not suffice,” the judge said.