Monday, November 19, 2001
C.A. Rules for Aaron Spelling in Long-Running ‘Family’ Litigation
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Producer Aaron Spelling’s published claim that the concept for the 1970s hit television series “Family” originated in his kitchen didn’t defame a writer who has long claimed that Spelling stole the idea of the show from her, this district’s Court of Appeal has ruled.
The decision is merely the latest chapter in a series of lawsuits that has lasted longer than any of Spelling’s hit series. Rhonda K. Walker, the Pasadena attorney who represents plaintiff Jeri Emmett Laird, said Friday that she will seek review in the state Supreme Court.
Laird sued Spelling-Goldberg Productions for copyright infringement in 1977. The suit charged that Spelling-Goldberg had taken Laird’s story ideas and characters to develop “Family.”
The suit was later dismissed for failure to prosecute. Laird appealed unsuccessfully, then sued her lawyers for malpractice in 1983.
She convinced a jury that delays by the attorneys caused the dismissal, and that she would otherwise have won the lawsuit. She obtained a jury verdict for $1.69 million, but lost it in Laird v. Blacker (1992) 2 Cal.4th 606, holding that an appeal doesn’t toll the time in which to sue for legal malpractice.
Laird did battle with Spelling again over “Family” after his autobiography “My Prime-Time Life” appeared in 1996. In it, he said that the show “was born in my kitchen” and that the show was created by Jay Presson Allen “from an idea Len [Goldberg] and I had.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl, in a 1997 ruling, sustained a demurrer. She concluded that because Laird wasn’t mentioned by name, and because Spelling never explicitly claimed that others didn’t contribute, the statements in the book were not “of and concerning” Laird.
But Laird argued on appeal that the statements necessarily concerned her because no one else had ever claimed to have originated the idea before Spelling and his associates did. The Court of Appeal, in an unpublished 1999 opinion, agreed and said Laird had adequately alleged that the statements were defamatory.
The panel agreed with the defense, however, that the complaint was insufficient because it failed to allege special damages. It remanded with instructions that Laird be allowed to amend.
The amended complaint, however, was rejected by Judge Ralph Dau, who ruled that special damages were still not adequately pled. He sustained Spelling’s demurrer, without further leave to amend.
This time the trial judge was correct, Justice Orville Armstrong wrote for Div. Five Wednesday in an unpublished opinion.
Armstrong reiterated the prior ruling that Laird was alleging libel per quod, not libel per se, and had to plead and prove special damages pursuant to Civil Code Sec. 45a. Her claims that she suffered emotional distress, incurring medical expenses and causing her to have to join a gym to reduce stress, do not constitute allegations of special damages, he said.
He rejected her contention that the alleged defamation caused her to lose her property rights with respect to the show.
If, as Laird has alleged all along, Spelling misappropriated her idea and used it to his advantage, her damages couldn’t have been a result of the statements in the book, Armstrong wrote.
“Laird’s general allegation that the 1996 biography constituted a second theft of the same property does not cure this defect,” Armstrong added. “It fails to state any new fact about damages or even to explain how the same property can be stolen twice….Laird was required to plead damages caused by the 1996 publication. Damages caused by earlier misappropriation will not suffice.”
Nor, the justice went on to say, can Laird recover damages for interference with business relations. Laird alleged that the denial of credit for “Family,” and the implication that she had been lying about her origination of the concept, interfered with her ability to obtain work in the television industry.
Laird can’t recover on an interference-with-prospective-advantage theory, Armstrong explained, because she didn’t allege the specifics of a prospective relationship that Spelling’s statements prevented her from realizing. The justice cited Wilson v. Loew’s, Inc. (1956) 142 Cal.App.2d 183, in which writers blacklisted for non-cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee sued film producers and distributors for refusing to do business with them.
Laird’s claims are like those of the writers in Wilson, Armstrong explained, because a mere “hope or expectation of employment” is not a prospective relationship within the meaning of the law.
Spelling’s attorney, Robert S. Chapman of Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman Machtinger & Kinsella, said he was “absolutely” convinced that the Laird-Spelling litigation was nearing its denouement. “She’s entitled to try to get the Supreme Court interested in hearing it,” he said, but added that “there’s no real issue here that the Supreme Court should be interested in.”
The case is Laird v. Spelling, B141706.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company