“Columbo” Creators Lose A $70 Million Dollar Payday When The Judge Misinterprets One Word In Their Contract

Steven T. Lowe

Empty American Style Courtroom. Supreme Court of Law and Justice Trial Stand. Courthouse Before Civil Case Hearing Starts. Grand Wooden Interior with Judge’s Bench, Defendant’s and Plaintiff’s Tables.

On March 30, 2022, the California Court of Appeal for the Second District agreed with the trial court’s decision in a case between the creators of the hit television show Columbo and Universal Studios. The main issue present in the case was the interpretation of a single word, namely the undefined term, “photoplays,” in the 1971 contract between the parties. Specifically, the question before the court was whether the episodes of Columbo that had aired would be considered “photoplays.” If they were, then Universal was entitled to deduct a hefty distribution fee from exploitations since the show stopped airing in 1978. If not, then no “distribution fee” could be deducted. 

The court declined to define the term “photoplay” before trial, presumably because the court wanted to hear the evidence on what that word meant in 1971 and how it should be reasonably interpreted in connection with the entire contract. On March 7, 2019, the jury came in with a $70 million dollar verdict in favor of the creators. Thereafter on December 2, 2019, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Burdge Jr. called this decision his “mistake” and granted Universal Studios’ motion for a new trial concerning the definition of the word “photoplays.” The judge then took it upon itself to define “photoplay” in a way that undid the $70 million dollar verdict. Specifically, the court ruled that “photoplays” was “intended to apply to any video recorded program…which includes individual episodes of Columbo” as there was “no useful or conflicting extrinsic evidence about the meaning of the word.”

At trial, the creators had successfully convinced the jury to define “photoplays” as not including the actual episodes of Columbo that had already aired. However, after the enormous verdict for the creators, Judge Burdge wrote, “it was my mistake. I should have instructed the jury that photoplay was intended to include the episodes of Columbo in the agreement.” 

Then, on March 30, 2022, the panel of Justices for the California Court of Appeal for the Second District affirmed Judge Burdge’s decision to grant a new trial, define “photoplays” to include the Columbo episodes, and grant the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. However, the court of appeals did, in fact, reverse a previous summary judgment in favor of Universal on the fraud claim against Universal. The Court of Appeals found that Universal’s statute of limitations argument for the fraud claim was “plagued” by disputed facts. Universal had previously successfully convinced the judge that the creators failed to investigate their concerns within a reasonable time period. However, the creators painted a compelling picture in which they “trusted” Universal and Universal “represented” themselves as being truthful, so there was no need to investigate. Consequently, the Court of Appeals recognized that the parties had presented radically different pictures of what had transpired and reversed the previous summary adjudication against the creators. Thus, the creators may have the ability to have another day in court.

William Link and Richard Levinson, the creators, are represented by Alton Burkhalter of Burkhalter Kessler Clement & George LLP.

Universal Studios is represented by Dan Petrocelli of O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

This case is Foxcroft Productions Inc. et al. v. Universal City Studios LLC, case number B303161, in the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District.

* Lowe & Associates (“The Firm”) is a boutique entertainment and business law firm located in Beverly Hills, California. The firm has extensive experience handling cases involving entertainment law, having provided top-quality legal services to its clients since 1991. The Firm is recognized for its many achievements, including successfully litigating many high-profile cases.

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