Pooh appeal challenges judge's decision to terminate
The Slesinger family, whose long-running Winnie the Pooh licensing case against Disney was tossed out of court last year, has asked the California Court of Appeal to reinstate the family members’ billion-dollar civil lawsuit.
Suit was dismissed because a private eye, hired by the Slesingers, illegally took Disney documents from a trash bin.
Appeal, filed by the law firm Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin, argues that the judge did not have the power to terminate the case as a sanction for taking case documents from Disney’s trash bins, and less severe sanctions were more appropriate.
The appeal also points out that Disney waited eight years to complain about the trash bin incident and has not proved how it has been harmed. The Slesingers suggested an order preventing the use at trial of the documents they found would be more appropriate.
In the appeal, the Slesingers’ lawyers also argue that the decision provides a windfall to Disney because it was sanctioned earlier in the case for its own misconduct in destroying documents. Family attorney Jerome Falk said, “The Slesingers’ strong case on the merits has been tossed not because a jury found that it lacked merit but because of something an investigator did more than a decade ago.”
The Winnie the Pooh saga came to an end last March when L.A. Superior Court Judge Charles McCoy issued an astounding ruling dismissing the Slesingers’ royalty case as punishment for their “egregious” and “dishonest” misconduct.
Decision followed a weeklong hearing in which Disney asked the court to dismiss the case on the grounds that the Slesingers had hired a private investigator who stole thousands of documents from Disney’s trash bins and then lied about it for years to hide the fact that they possessed crucial privileged documents.
Most observers thought a victory for Disney would have involved lifting the sanctions to even the playing field at trial, not dismissal of the case.
At the hearing, Pati Slesinger testified that in response to years of stonewalling by Disney, she hired a private investigator to find helpful documents in Disney’s trash bins. The investigator insisted he took documents only from bins on public property. Among the thousands of useless documents, the investigator found several privileged documents, including a summary of the litigation and a merchandising analysis.
McCoy rejected the testimony that the investigator had carefully avoided trespassing on private property to get the documents. He also concluded that Pati Slesinger had altered at least one document that was returned to Disney.
In his strongly worded opinion, McCoy concluded that plaintiffs were “dishonest and show no remorse.”
The Slesinger family sued in 1991 after they became convinced that Disney was cheating it on royalties. Stephen Slesinger originally obtained North American rights to the Pooh characters from author A.A. Milne in the 1930s. His wife, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, licensed Pooh to Disney in the 1960s. With Pooh as Disney’s most lucrative character, and damage estimates running as high as $1 billion, the case was a nightmare for Disney until its surprising dismissal.
In the earlier years of the case, the previous judge, Ernest Hiroshige, found that Disney had destroyed documents, including a file marked “Pooh legal problems.”
In a ruling that made the case virtually untriable for Disney, Hiroshige ruled that a jury would be told Disney suppressed evidence and that Disney could not dispute a key claim that a deceased Disney executive promised that the family would be paid royalties on videocassette sales.
In 2003 the case was transferred McCoy, the head of the complex-litigation unit of L.A. Superior Court.
The long-running case has involved dozens of law firms over the years. The Slesingers have been represented by at least 10 firms. Disney also changed counsel after Hiroshige issued sanctions. It is currently represented by Daniel Petrocelli of O’Melveny & Myers.