Legal and Management

Vicky Cornell vs. Soundgarden Lawsuit: Judge Recommends Dismissal of 2 Claims

Chris Cornell and Vicky Karayiannis
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Chris Cornell and Vicky Karayiannis at the Los Angeles premiere of 'The Promise' held at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on April 12, 2017.

U.S. District Judge Michelle Peterson says there's no evidence the band is withholding royalties from Chris Cornell's widow.

A federal judge in Washington state is recommending the court toss out two of Vicky Cornell’s six claims against the remaining members of Soundgarden, her late husband Chris Cornell’s band.

U.S. District Judge Michelle Peterson said in report filed Friday that there wasn’t evidence that the band was improperly withholding “hundreds of thousands of dollars” of Chris Cornell’s royalties from her or that the band’s manager breached his duty to look after her best interests. Peterson’s report will now be sent to the case’s presiding judge, Robert S. Lasnik, who will make the final decision.

Vicky Cornell has been embroiled in an ongoing legal dispute with the band’s remaining members after her husband’s sudden death on May 18, 2017 at the age of 52 while on tour in Detroit. He left his property -- including his intellectual and personal property rights -- to her for the benefit of their two minor children.

On Dec. 9, 2019, two and half years after Chris Cornell’s death, Vicky Cornell filed a lawsuit against the remaining members of the band -- Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd -- and their business manager Rit Venerus, asking a judge to declare her the rightful owner of her husband’s unreleased sound recordings and of his name and likeness. She also demanded the court order the band to open its finances to her and to provide her with an inventory of all of Chris Cornell’s personal property that was stored at the Pearl Jam warehouse space. In addition, she claimed the band was withholding thousands of dollars of Chris Cornell’s royalties from her and accused the band’s manager of breaching his fiduciary duty to her.

In Peterson’s opinion, however, the judge found that Venerus was merely a go-between for Vicky Cornell and the band and not her advisor. In addition, Peterson said there wasn’t evidence that the band willfully withheld distribution of funds from Vicky Cornell or that funds were misappropriated to pay for the band’s legal fees in this case, as Vicky Cornell claimed in her suit. Soundgarden argued that the disputed funds are owned by the band’s partnership, and that under Washington law that partnership continues to legally own the funds until there is a distribution by a partner vote.

Peterson did not issue a finding on Soundgarden’s “alternative argument” that Chris Cornell became dissociated from the partnership when he passed. They argued that because the band never had a written band agreement, Washington general partnership law therefore governs their dispute, and that under that law, they are only obliged to provide a buyout offer to his estate after receiving a formal written buyout demand.

Vicky Cornell’s attorney Marty Singer said in a statement released in response to the judge's recommendation that his client plans to “vehemently object” to it.

“The magistrate’s recommendation was based solely on her subjective and un-adopted opinion that additional facts must be added to our client’s complaint, and we intend to amend our client’s complaint to include those facts,” said Singer. “Most importantly, the magistrate’s recommendation has zero impact on the significant claims against Soundgarden and its band members, who have sought to trample on Chris Cornell’s rights by unlawfully asserting ownership over his vocal recordings and by depriving his wife and children of millions of dollars that the band members want to keep for themselves.”

This isn’t Vicky Cornell’s only ongoing legal dispute with the band. In February, she filed a separate lawsuit against the remaining Soundgarden members, asking a federal judge to step in and decide the worth of her late husband’s interest in the band. In that case, Vicky accuses of Thayil, Cameron and Shepherd of having severely undervalued her share, offering her “the villainously low figure of less than $300,000” when she demanded they buy out Chris Cornell’s interest in Soundgarden, according to her 11-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court Western District of Washington at Seattle. That offer came after the group received a $16 million offer for its master recordings, she claims.

Vicky Cornell says she counter offered the band members $12 million for their collective interests, equaling $4 million per surviving band member, which they summarily denied in December. She said she later offered them $21 million for the band’s interests -- $7 million per member -- and that offer was also rejected. The four-member rock group never had a written partnership agreement, according to court papers.

Vicky Cornell’s court papers state her filing was “necessitated by the self-serving and heartless actions of the remaining members of the band Soundgarden, who are seeking to rob from their former bandmate, Chris Cornell (“Chris”), his wife (“Vicky”), and their minor children, Chris’ legacy and life’s worth, which has made them millions of dollars.” Adding that “the band members have knowingly offered only an infinitesimal fraction of the true worth of Chris’ interest in Soundgarden and certain related entities by making a ludicrously low offer. And, they know it.”

Soundgarden declined to comment.

Chris Cornell's Never Before Seen Keynote Address at the 2014 Billboard Touring Conference