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Coppola cume: $80 mil

Helmer awarded $60 mil in damages

The hits just kept coming for director Francis Coppola, who won a staggering $60 million in punitive damages Thursday in his lawsuit against Warner Bros. over the ill-fated “Pinocchio” project. When combined with the $20 million in compensatory damages Coppola was awarded last week, the damages now total $80 million.

Last week, an L.A. Superior Court jury found that Warner Bros., by claiming it had a prior agreement with the director, had unlawfully interfered with Coppola’s attempt to take the “Pinocchio” project to Columbia Pictures. As a result of Warners’ actions, the jury found, the director was prevented from completing a long-cherished project.

After the verdict, Coppola said, “I feel sorry for the Warner Bros. shareholders, but (Warners co-chairmen) Terry Semel and Bob Daly need to be taught a lesson about how to treat creative talent.”

Coppola’s attorney, Robert Chapman, added, “The jury is sending a message to Warner Bros. that studios have to follow the law and respect the rights of others, and that they will be held to the same standards as everyone else.”

‘Simply ludicrous’

In a statement, Warner Bros. said, “Since the jury found that Warner Bros. reasonably believed it had a contract with Mr. Coppola, there is absolutely no basis for the jury’s award of punitive damages, and the $60 million is simply ludicrous. We are confident the Court of Appeal will agree.”

Warners’ statement refers to a lengthy special verdict form the jurors filled out during deliberations. The majority of the 12 jurors found that Warners believed it had an agreement with Coppola. Prior to trial, L.A. Superior Court Judge Madeleine Flier ruled that documents Warners relied on as proof of an agreement — a signed certificate of employment and an unsigned longform producing agreement — were unenforceable, but she did let Warners put on evidence that it had a good-faith belief that there was an agreement.

But interviews with jurors revealed that although Warners may have thought it had an agreement, the jurors didn’t. They also disapproved of the actions Warners subsequently took to stop Coppola from taking the project to Columbia.

Zapping Warners

The jurors also zapped Warners on other fronts, with several saying they found Semel to be a rude and arrogant witness. “Semel disliked Francis so much it oozed out of him,” said one juror.

Jurors were also disturbed by what they perceived as the disparate treatment Brian Henson received from Warners. Henson was to co-produce the Warner Bros. “Pinocchio” and provide the puppets, but went on to do the 1996 version of the film starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas without interference from Warners.

In a vindication for Coppola attorney Barry Hirsch, the jurors held the studio, not Coppola or his lawyers, responsible for Coppola’s producing agreement not being signed. “The message we want to send is that Hollywood has to revise the way it does business,” said one juror.

A star jury consultant

In helping select the jury in the first place, Coppola’s team turned to jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, who gained fame for helping O.J. Simpson’s legal team in choosing a jury.

The $60 million in punitives the jury awarded represents approximately 1% of the stipulated net worth of Time-Warner, and it’s on the low side of the 1%-2% Coppola’s attorney Robert Chapman asked the jury to award.

Although conventional wisdom is that large punitive damage awards are vulnerable to post-trial reduction, the usual rule of thumb is that they should have a reasonable relation to compensatory damages — usually interpreted as not more than five times compensatories. At three times compensatories, the award to Coppola easily satisfies that formula. As for awards that are huge, but a reasonable multiple of compensatory damages, the law is sketchy.

Large enough to hurt

In a brief hearing Wednesday, jurors were told that punitives should be an amount large enough to hurt and have some reasonable relationship to the amount of compensatory damages. Warner Bros. attorneys asked that no punitives be awarded.

Outside the presence of the jury, Warners lost a round when the judge ruled that the net worth for the jury to consider would be that of Time Warner, not Warner Bros., a division of Time Warner.

What comes next are a series of post-trial motions at the trial-court level and, undoubtedly, an appeal by Warner Bros.