‘S-Town’ Podcast Producers Settle Lawsuit With Subject’s Estate

Valero Doval/Serial Productions

The producers of “S-Town” have settled a publicity lawsuit with the estate of John B. McLemore, the deceased subject of the hit podcast.

The estate filed the suit in Bibb County, Ala., in July 2018, alleging that the podcast had used McLemore’s identity for a commercial purpose, violating the Alabama Right of Publicity law.

The settlement was finalized on Friday, according to Cooper Shattuck, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys.

“I am pleased that the parties were able to resolve the S-Town lawsuit by mutual agreement,” said Craig Cargile, the estate administrator, in a statement.

Julie Snyder, CEO of Serial Productions, said in an interview that she was “relieved” the litigation was over.

“John McLemore was absolutely an active and consenting participant in the documentary,” Snyder said.

Shattuck and Snyder each declined to say whether any money had changed hands. However, Shattuck did say that the estate has “no objection or claim to the podcast, nor does the estate have any objection or claim to any future uses of the podcast or the journalistic and creative work relating to John B. McLemore by the defendants or their designees.”

“S-Town” was released in 2017. Narrator Brian Reed tells the story of McLemore, a restorer of antique clocks who invites Reed to Woodstock, Ala., to investigate a murder. McLemore dies of suicide partway through the seven-episode series, and Reed continues to investigate his life, his sexuality and his mental health. The show won a Peabody Award and was downloaded more than 80 million times.

Cargile, acting as a guardian ad litem for McLemore’s mother, went to probate court following the release of the podcast in order to establish McLemore’s estate. He then filed suit, alleging that “S-Town” had sold ads to Blue Apron, Squarespace, and other brands, and had therefore hijacked McLemore’s publicity rights for a commercial purpose.

Serial Productions, which produced the show, argued that the suit should be thrown out because “S-Town” was a work of journalism, and was protected by the First Amendment. However, in March 2019, Judge L. Scott Coogler refused to dismiss the complaint, saying the plaintiff had asserted a “plausible claim for relief.”

The two sides engaged in discovery, with Reed sitting for a deposition in January. They also sought mediation.

On March 12, Coogler ordered the case dismissed with prejudice after the parties informed him they had reached an agreement. However, according to Shattuck, the deal was not finalized until Friday.

Serial Productions released a statement that had been provided by Cargile, in which the estate administrator said he had learned through discovery that McLemore was an avid listener of “This American Life,” and that McLemore had cooperated with the show and encouraged others to do so.

“I have concluded that Serial Productions, Mr. Reed, and the other creators of S-Town acted responsibly and appropriately in their reporting on John B. McLemore,” Cargile said in the statement.

Cargile also said in the statement that he had filed the lawsuit “without the prior knowledge or consent of Mr. McLemore’s family.”

Snyder said it was important to clarify that the family had not filed the suit, and that the suit did not allege an invasion of privacy.

“There was no merit to any kind of right of privacy claim,” she said. “It’s basically an advertising lawsuit. We never used John McLemore’s identity or likeness in any advertising manner.”

In 2018, it was reported that “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy was in talks to direct a film version of the podcast. That project remains in development.