More than a year after they were thrown out of court, the Winnie the Pooh rights holders appealed the dismissal of their case May 25, saying that it was an unprecedented abuse of power by the judge.
LOS ANGELES (The Hollywood Reporter) -- More than a year after they were thrown out of court, the Winnie the Pooh rights holders appealed the dismissal of their case May 25, saying that it was an unprecedented abuse of power by the judge.
Stephen Slesinger Inc. remains incensed that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles McCoy Jr. summarily dismissed its case in March 2004 because investigators for the plaintiffs allegedly stole and altered Walt Disney documents to gain an advantage at trial.
The appellate brief notes that the Slesingers were willing to forego the use of those documents at trial and even hire a new set of attorneys.
"Dismissal of the entire case was overkill and deprived Slesinger of its day in court on claims that, even by Disney's public estimate, expose it to hundreds of millions [of dollars] in damages," said Jerome Falk Jr., an appellate specialist who is leading the appeal for the Slesingers. "The trial court's action was unprecedented and, I am convinced, incorrect."
Shirley Slesinger Lasswell and daughter Pati Slesinger filed the case 14 years ago over Disney's alleged refusal to pay as much as $700 million in royalties from video cassettes, DVDs, computer software and other revenue sources.
"My husband and I built the Winnie the Pooh franchise and then sold the licensing rights to Walt Disney himself in 1961," said Lasswell, whose husband originally licensed the rights from Pooh author A.A. Milne in 1931. "We never expected Disney to breach its contract with us."
Disney's lead attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, discounted the thrust of the appeal.
"There is nothing new here," Petrocelli said. "The trial court rejected every one of the arguments raised in the Slesingers' appeal, plus many more."
The appeal took 14 months because the Slesingers first tried to disqualify McCoy based on an alleged conflict of interest and then requested a new trial. Both requests were denied by the court.
The case has been bruising to Disney as well, as when the judge who preceded McCoy hit Disney with sanctions for allegedly destroying several boxes of evidence. The sanctions could have proven pivotal at trial, as the court stated that jurors would be instructed to assume certain facts about the licensing agreement between Disney and the Slesingers.
The appeal challenges McCoy's dismissal on three legal grounds. It is first argued that California law does not permit a trial judge to terminate a lawsuit unless that power has been conferred by the legislature, and that power was not granted in this case. The plaintiffs also claim that dismissal is not permitted unless the offending action violated a prior court order. The Slesingers argue that terminating sanctions are not allowed if a lesser form of punishment can resolve the problem.
"The terminating sanction imposed in this case indisputably puts Disney in a better position than it would have been had Slesinger's investigator never inspected a single garbage can," the brief said. "The sanction relieved Disney of its obligation to defend Slesinger's lawsuit."
McCoy based his ruling on his concerns that the Slesingers' "willingness to tamper with and even corrupt the litigation process constitutes a substantial threat to the integrity of the judicial process."