'Baby Reindeer' lawsuit: Alleged real-life Martha sues Netflix for defamation. What legal experts have said.

Before Fiona Harvey filed, defamation lawyers said that she may have a case — but that Netflix may as well.

Richard Gadd, behind the bar at left, and Jessica Gunning, seated at the bar, star in the Netflix hit
Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning star in the Netflix hit Baby Reindeer. (Ed Miller/Netflix)

The woman who claims she’s the real-life inspiration for Baby Reindeer’s serial stalker character Martha is suing Netflix for $170 million alleging defamation.

Fiona Harvey filed the lawsuit June 6 in California, claiming the streaming service and its series star and creator Richard Gadd told the “biggest lie in television history” by billing the show as a “true story.” She is also suing for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and violations of her right of publicity, claiming she is “unable to leave her home.”

“The lies that Defendants told about Harvey to over 50 million people worldwide include that Harvey is a twice-convicted stalker who was sentenced to five years in prison, and that Harvey sexually assaulted Gadd,” the Scottish woman’s lawsuit says.

Harvey claims Netflix and Gadd told “brutal lies” because they were motivated “to attract more viewers” and “make more money,” as well as to “viciously destroy the life of” Harvey “at a magnitude and scale without precedent.”

A Netflix spokesperson told Yahoo Entertainment in a statement: "We intend to defend this matter vigorously and to stand by Richard Gadd's right to tell his story."

The seven-episode series is billed as a “true story” by both Netflix and Gadd. The screen adaptation is based on the British actor's one-man show of the same name, which tells the story of a struggling comedian (Gadd) who is stalked and terrorized by a woman named Martha (Jessica Gunning).

Since its debut on April 11, the show has garnered more than 80 million views globally.

On April 26, the Daily Mail published an anonymous interview with Harvey. On May 9, she revealed herself in an interview with Piers Morgan, during which she denied ever harassing Gadd and threatened to sue Netflix and the creator for defamation. After the interview, Morgan said he thought Harvey wasn’t being honest about certain facts in the interview.

Harvey’s interview brought to light the implications of adapting true stories, especially when the real-life people involved dispute how they are portrayed.

A down-on-his luck comedian, Donny Dunn (Gadd), is working at a bar in London when a female patron named Martha becomes obsessed with him. Giving Donny the pet name “Baby Reindeer,” she starts emailing, texting and leaving threatening voicemails that terrorize him and his family. Donny soon discovers that Martha isn’t the successful lawyer she claims to be but rather a criminal who has served prison time for stalking victims in the past.

Jessica Gunning, seated and holding a menu, as Martha in
Jessica Gunning as Martha in Baby Reindeer. (Ed Miller/Netflix)

Gadd says the story is ‘emotionally true’

In an interview with the Guardian, Gadd said all the events were “emotionally true. … I was severely stalked and severely abused.” But he added that timelines, names and certain accounts in the series were “tweaked slightly” for dramatic effect.

Gadd alleges that Harvey sent over 41,000 emails, left roughly 350 hours of voicemails and wrote him hundreds of social posts. The events are believed to have happened between 2013 and 2017, based on timelines that he has referenced over the years since he first staged the one-man show in 2019.

Richard Gadd  in front of the camera on the street in
Gadd in Baby Reindeer. (Ed Miller/Netflix)

In her interview with Morgan, Harvey said any implication that she stalked Gadd is “simply not true.” She claims she “never” contacted him by phone and sent him “less than 10” emails.

“I’m not a stalker. I’ve not been to jail; I’ve not got injunctions,” Harvey told Morgan, saying neither Netflix nor Gadd spoke with her before the series was released. She also threatened to sue for defamation and claims to be a target of online hate because of her depiction on the show.

Yahoo Entertainment was unable to reach Harvey for comment.

Soon after Baby Reindeer premiered in April, internet sleuths falsely accused TV writer Sean Foley of being the inspiration for the character Darrien, a real-life sexual abuser depicted in the series by Tom Goodman-Hill. Gadd later took to social media to post a request to fans: “Please don't speculate on who any of the real-life people could be. That's not the point of our show.”

On May 8, Benjamin King, Netflix’s senior director of public policy in the U.K. and Ireland, addressed British Parliament at a hearing with its Culture, Media and Sport Committee about the company’s safeguarding standards, saying the company and producer Clerkenwell Films took “every reasonable precaution in disguising the real-life identities of the people involved in that story.”

He added that Baby Reindeer is “obviously a true story of the horrific abuse” experienced by Gadd.

When Harvey first threatened to file a lawsuit, legal experts weighed in on her chances. She will have to prove that Netflix knowingly distributed lies about her on the show — but the streamer has a strong counterargument, the experts said.

“Netflix could argue that no one would have understood the series to be about [Harvey] until she came forward and outed herself,” Los Angeles defamation lawyer Jeff Lewis told Yahoo. “Netflix may argue she harmed herself or at least failed to mitigate damages by going on Piers Morgan.”

Texas lawyer Brian Beckcom believes that Harvey stands a “much better chance” of winning a defamation case in the U.K. than in the United States.

“The First Amendment to the Constitution protects free speech in the U.S., and the U.K. does not have a similar Constitutional rule,” he said. “In the U.S., in order to win a defamation case, you must prove that what the other person said was false, they knew it, and they said it anyway, on purpose. In the U.K., by contrast, the person publishing the statement must prove it was true or based on a good-faith belief.”

Just prior to the lawsuit's being filed, Gadd was asked at the June 4 Gotham TV Awards about a potential second season of the show.

"I think Baby Reindeer is done," he replied. "I'm very proud of it and very proud of how it ends. It felt very complete to me. ... I always saw it as a one-off. I always reserve a 1% 'never say never,' but I really do think it's best left where it is."

Updated June 7, 2024, 1:50 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to reflect that Fiona Harvey has filed a lawsuit against Netflix for $170 million.