Thursday, March 19, 2009
C.A. Rejects Orphans’ Suit Over TV Home Makeover
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Five orphaned siblings who claim the friends who took them in before they appeared on the ABC television show “Extreme Makeover, Home Edition” forced them from the new home after the episode aired cannot sue the network and producers, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Affirming a grant of summary judgment, Div. Eight in an unpublished opinion rejected claims that the siblings were promised their own home for appearing on the reality television show and that the network added insult to injury by rebroadcasting the episode.
Charles Higgins II, then 21, became guardian of siblings Charis, Joshua and Jeremiah—then 16, 15 and 14, respectively—and struggled to keep them together in their Downey apartment with brother Michael, then 18, after their parents died in 2004.
Fellow church congregants Phil and Loki Leomiti took the siblings in to their Santa Fe Springs home to live with the Leomitis’ three children, and the story became news fodder, drawing the attention of “Extreme Makeover, Home Edition” producers Lock and Key Productions.
A casting producer contacted Charles Higgins after his father’s funeral, offering assistance, and Higgins told the producer that the show should make over the Leomitis’ cramped house in order to accommodate both families.
The families were selected to appear on the show in February 2005, and days before taping was to begin the Leomitis received copies of an applicant agreement and release. It stated the families would receive certain gifts and have improvements made to the home where they lived in exchange for releasing personal publicity rights and all claims against the producers.
Loki Leomiti presented the agreement to the Higginses four days later, right before taping was to begin, and the siblings signed it.
The families were then sent on a one-week Disneyworld vacation cruise, and given cars, computers, stereos, cameras and other items. The Leomitis’ house was demolished and their mortgage paid off, and a new house built to fit both families.
The episode was broadcast the following month, becoming one of the show’s highest rated episodes. However, Higgins and his siblings claimed the Leomitis soon began a campaign of harassment, humiliation, and intimidation designed to drive them out, despite having allegedly assured the siblings the remodeling was intended to allow them to live there permanently.
Alleging Lock and Key did nothing to help them, the siblings then sued the Leomitis, as well as the network, producers, and builders of the home. They contended they were promised a home where they could live permanently, and that they were never told they had no ownership interest or that they could be evicted even though the house was rebuilt as a result of their plight.
However, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paul Gutman sustained a demurrer by the network, producers and builders, and granted summary judgment against the siblings, which the Court of Appeal affirmed.
Justice Laurence D. Rubin explained that the agreement “cannot reasonably be construed as extending title to non-owners living in the house,” and said that any promises by the producers that the siblings “would get a home” were “too vague and indefinite to constitute factual misrepresentations.”
He also wrote that the relevant portions of the agreement were valid and enforceable and that claims for appropriation of likeness and false light were barred by the siblings’ release of their publicity rights before rejecting unfair competition, business practices and third party beneficiary claims.
Rubin then rebuffed the siblings’ claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, noting the defendants had no duty to intervene in “an essentially private matter” between the two families, and that the network’s rebroadcast of the episode could not be considered sufficiently outrageous when the plaintiffs expressly agreed it could do so.
Justice Patricia A. Bigelow and Ventura Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O’Neill Jr., sitting by assignment, joined Rubin in his opinion.
Counsel for the network, producers and builders—Patricia L. Glaser of Glaser, Weil, Fink, Jacobs & Shapiro in Los Angeles—told the MetNews that her clients were extremely pleased and appreciative that the court recognized the facts and the law dictated a ruling in their favor.
The Higgens’ attorney, Patrick A. Mesisca Jr. of Los Angeles firm Mesisca, Riley & Kreitenberg LLP, declined to speculate on his clients’ next course of action, commenting only that the opinion was “well considered and well written,” and that they would give it every consideration.
He did, however, confirm that his clients’ action against the Leomitis for fraud, conversion and other claims remained pending.
The case is Higgins v. Disney/ABC International Television, Inc., B200885.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company