In another round of musical chairs for the Winnie the Pooh case, lawyers for the Slesinger family have stepped out. New counsel has not yet stepped in.
Jones, Day, the national law firm that was representing the Slesingers in their long-running battle with Disney over royalties on Pooh merchandising, has only been in the case since June. The firm took over after well-known entertainment litigator Bert Fields withdrew for undisclosed reasons. Jones Day was the eighth law firm to represent Shirley Slesinger Lasswell and her daughter Pati since the case was filed in L.A. Superior Court in 1991.
Last week, the case also got a new judge – Charles W. McCoy — when L.A. Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige, who has presided over the case for most of the past decade, asked the complex litigation unit of the court to handle because of the difficult accounting issues and the expected length of a trial.
In a letter submitted to the court Thursday, Jones Day said it was withdrawing because the Slesingers concluded they could not afford to have the firm represent them. In a statement, the Slesingers said, “As a legal strategy, Disney has decided to make this case as expensive for us as possible. We are not a giant corporation like Disney. We are a mother and daughter. During the last couple of months, Jones Day’s fees for handling this matter were much higher than either we or the firm expected, and they far exceeded what we can afford to pay. For this reason, we will be retaining new attorneys.”
Despite the letter, Disney attorney Daniel Petrocelli says the real reason Jones Day has withdrawn is to avoid a hearing on Disney’s so-called “trash motion.” In February, Disney made a motion to terminate the case because of alleged misconduct by the Slesingers. Disney claims the family found privileged documents by illegally going through Disney’s trash. That motion is still pending. Disney’s trash motion followed a 2001 ruling by Hiroshige that a jury could be told Disney destroyed documents relevant to the case. That ruling was upheld on appeal.
Said Petrocelli, “Whenever we are on the verge of getting our motion heard and calling the Slesingers to the witness stand to account for their misconduct, they fire their lawyers and ask to put the case on hold.”
While the Slesingers may be a mother and daughter and not a giant corporation, the family has earned millions of dollars from licensing Pooh. Stephen Slesinger originally obtained the North American rights to Pooh from author A.A. Milne in the 1930s. Lasswell, his wife, licensed Pooh to Disney in the 1960s. Lasswell — now in her 80s — and her daughter Pati sued Disney in 1991 after they became convinced that Disney was cheating them on royalties. Given that Pooh is Disney’s most popular character, potential damage estimates run as high as $1 billion.