Attorneys for the producers of the “Jenny Jones” show will likely get the $25 million judgment against them overturned on appeal, entertainment industry legal eagles suggested Friday.
And while the size of the amount surprised many veteran litigators, few expect the jury’s decision to have a widespread effect on the production of flamboyant talk shows.
The initial fallout from the verdict is likely to be a review and revision of the contracts used by talk shows for guests.
On Friday, a Michigan jury ordered TelePictures, producers of “Jenny Jones,” to pay $25 million to the family of Scott Amedure.
Amedure was killed by Jonathan Schmitz just days after the pair appeared on the show; Amedure revealed he had a crush on Schmitz.
Attorneys for Amedure were successful in convincing the jury that the producers of the show were negligent and caused the wrongful death of Amedure.
The jury also sided with plaintiff counsel’s claims that show staffers knew Schmitz would strike out as a result of being embarrassed on the program, but failed to take steps to prevent it.
The show never aired, though clips of the encounter frequently aired on news shows and during coverage of Schmitz’s criminal trial. Schmitz stood trial for second-degree murder and is awaiting a retrial.
“These kinds of shows won’t end because of this verdict,” said veteran litigator Kevin James of Crosby Heathy Roach and May. “Although it may force a review of the language contained in the releases guests sign before going on, whether it’s upheld or not.”
Entertainment and constitutional law attorneys surveyed also suggested the initial defeat of “Jenny Jones” defense attorneys will likely precipitate the filling of more lawsuits that seek to blame criminal conduct of a talk show guest on the show’s producer.
“Anytime a case like this is allowed to get to a jury, it just makes it easier for the next case to be heard,” said Doug Mirell, a First Amendment and media law expert for Loeb and Loeb. “It just shouldn’t happen.”
Mirell noted that unless an imminent threat existed and the shows’ staff ignored it, or the intention of the show’s producers was to encourage a criminal act (i.e. the killing), an appeal should be granted. “I don’t think this verdict can stand,” Mirell said.
Attorneys for TelePictures assert one of the instructions given to the jury before it deliberated was flawed and is also grounds for an appeal.
Many lawyers surveyed suggested that the climate of having several high-profile violent acts in the news, such as the Columbine High School shooting, was also partly responsible for the jury’s excessive verdict.
“I was shocked by the amount,” James said. “I didn’t think the jury was going to award the plaintiffs the $70 million they were asking for, but a $25 million judgment is a surprise. It speaks to the climate, where the unlawful conduct of people is blamed on the entertainment industry.”
TelePictures lawyers said the killing of Amedure by Schmitz could not have been anticipated. They asserted it occurred largely because Schmitz suffered from manic depression and a thyroid condition that caused mood swings.
Attorneys for Amedure’s family sued the show in 1996, claiming it was responsible for their son’s death.
The complaint alleged Amedure was shot by Schmitz in 1995 because he was so embarrassed by Amedure’s admission of having a crush on Schmitz.
Amedure’s lawyers claimed the show’s staff set out to humiliate Schmitz and that they should have known about Schmitz’s potential mental problems.
“There are certain things protected by free speech and there are certain things that aren’t, and lying to people, misleading people and exploiting people is not protected by the First Amendment,” said Ven Johnson, who along with Geoffrey Fieger repped Amedure’s family.
“The public and every single media outlet should fear the chilling effect this verdict, if upheld, will have on the basic interview process,” said Jim Paratore.
(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)