Crichton & Co. win ‘Twister’ lawsuit

Jury conducts whirlwind deliberations

After deliberating for two hours, the jury in the “Twister” plagiarism case concluded that plaintiff Stephen Kessler’s claims were full of hot air.

The three-week copyright infringement trial in U.S. District Court in St. Louis kicked up a whirlwind of interest because of its all-star cast. Defendants — all of whom were exonerated — were scripter Michael Crichton, his wife and co-author Anne-Marie Martin, executive producer Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. and Universal Studios, which financed the 1996 hit movie.

Crichton, who received the roughest treatment from plaintiff’s lawyers during trial, told Daily Variety, “Warner Bros. and Universal hung in with us when we said we wanted to try this case and not settle. I hope it will usher in a new era where studios fight these frivolous charges and don’t treat it as a cost of doing business. I’m very grateful. It was my reputation but their money.”

Kessler, a Missouri-based director of documentaries and commercials, claimed his screenplay “Catch the Wind” contained numerous similarities to the Helen Hunt-Bill Paxton starrer, and he sought all profits from the film. Kessler also claimed that in 1989 and 1990 he delivered his script to Warner Bros., Universal, CAA, which represented Spielberg and Crichton, and Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s production company.

But at trial, Crichton testified that he and his wife based the screenplay on a PBS docu about real tornado chasers and the plot of “His Girl Friday,” a 1940s romantic comedy. He also testified that he never heard of the Kessler screenplay until the lawsuit was filed.

As for plaintiff’s case, Kessler’s expert witness was forced to concede that there were several elements in his script that were not in “Twister” and that there was an earlier “Twister” script circulating in Hollywood years before he began writing “Catch the Wind.”

Perhaps the most ironic moment of the trial was Spielberg’s testimony that the special effects and not the writing were the source of “Twister’s” success, a statement probably intended to help a friend, given Spielberg’s past emphasis on the importance of the written word.

Plaintiff was represented by Mitch Margo and Martin Green of St. Louis. They were not available for comment following the verdict.

Defendants were represented at trial by Stephen Rovak of St. Louis and Robert Dudnik of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in Los Angeles.