Wednesday, April 2, 2014
C.A. Tosses Claim That TV Series Based on Stolen Work
Panel Says Plaintiffs Were Aware of ‘Ghost Hunters’ and Filed Suit Too Late
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday ordered dismissal of a suit by two writers who claim that NBC Universal stole their ideas and used them for the series “Ghost Hunters.”
Div. Four, in an unpublished opinion by Justice Nora Manella, said the company is entitled to summary judgment because Larry Montz and Daena Smoller were aware of the program more than two years before they sued, and that the action was therefore barred by the statute of limitations.
Montz and Smoller, long involved with “paranormal research,” alleged in the complaint that they communicated concepts for a series based on their work to NBC Universal—parent of Syfy, the cable channel that airs the program—between 1996 and 2001.
They proposed a reality-based program called “Ghost Expeditions: Hunted” in which “professional paranormal investigators” would lead a team that included “normal people with regular jobs” to investigate haunted houses throughout the country. The network said it was not interested.
In 2004, Syfy premiered Ghost Hunters, which features a pair of former plumbers who investigate claims of ghost sightings and other paranormal activity at various locations.
Smoller and Montz filed a federal copyright infringement suit in November 2006, 25 months after the show aired. They voluntarily dismissed the copyright claim, and after further proceedings in federal court, refiled their state claims in Los Angeles Superior Court in December 2011.
The defendants generally denied their allegations and affirmatively pled that the suit was time-barred under Code of Civil Procedure §339.
In moving for summary judgment, the defendants claimed there was indisputable evidence that the series was developed independent of the plaintiffs’ concepts, and that the plaintiffs knew, or reasonably should have known, more than two years before filing the suit that Ghost Hunters was being aired by the defendants.
They cited evidence that a network official wrote the plaintiffs’ producer an email in July 2004 about plans to air a “docu soap about a group of plumbers-by-day/ghost-hunters-by-night that set out on missions to disprove ghosts or paranormal activity.” Montz admitted in his deposition that he discussed the email with the producer, but said he didn’t know what relationship the concept bore to his work because he didn’t know what a “docu soap” was.
The plaintiffs argued the two-year period wasn’t triggered until Smoller saw an episode of Ghost Hunters in 2005.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ernest M. Hiroshige denied summary judgment. He said there was a triable issue of fact as to whether delayed discovery tolled the statute of limitations for at least a month beyond the date the series first aired.
He distinguished cases holding that the release in theaters of a motion picture is sufficient to place anyone claiming an interest in the work of its existence. Release on a cable television channel, he ruled, would not necessarily gain as much public attention as release in movie theaters.
The Court of Appeal, however, granted the defendants’ petition for writ of mandate yesterday, saying they were entitled to summary judgment.
Manella said the trial judge erred in concluding that the plaintiffs might be entitled to delayed accrual under the summary judgment rule.
“As a matter of law, their causes of action were complete no later than the date of the initial broadcast, October 6, 2004, because on that date, the marketability of the Concepts was destroyed due to its disclosure to the public,” the justice wrote.
Even if Hiroshige was correct in concluding that release on cable television was less likely to place plaintiffs on notice that their claims had accrued than if the work had been released in movie theaters, she added, “public disclosure to even a limited audience is sufficient to preclude a plaintiff from arguing that the breach and injury were secretive and difficult to detect.”
Manella further concluded that the plaintiffs were on inquiry notice following the email of July 2004.
The panel, the justice explained, did not consider the plaintiffs’ argument that a new cause of action has accrued each time a new episode of the series has aired using their ideas. The contention was raised for the first time in the plaintiffs’ return to the alternative writ of mandate, Manella said, and cannot be considered in the absence of a full factual record that the plaintiffs failed to develop.
The case is NBCUniversal Media, LLC v. Superior Court (Montz), B250892.
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