There is a very interesting torts case out of Los Angeles where one of the writer for the CBS show “CSI” has been sued by two real estate agents for allegedly using the show to trash them after a disagreement. Writer and producer Sarah Goldfinger allegedly put the characters of Melinda and Scott Tamkin into a script and even helped select actors who looked like them. The facts do not make this look like a coincidence and, if not, both Goldfinger and the show have much to answer for.
The couple is seeking $6 million for defamation and invasion-of-privacy. In the script, real estate Melinda dies suspiciously and her husband Scott (a mortgage broker) is suspected of killing her (when he is not watching pornography and drinking excessively).
The characters even had the last name of Tamkin until shortly before production when the name was changed to Tucker. The Tamkins in real life were representatives of the owners of a Los Angeles home that Goldfinger agreed to buy and then pulled out when the money was in escrow.
One of the leading cases in this areas is Muzikowski v. Paramount Pictures, which happens to have been written by Diane Wood. I still believe Wood is the favorite for Supreme Court nomination by President Obama.
Here are the facts in the Muzikowski case which focused on the Keanu Reeves character in the movie Hardball:
Since 1991, Muzikowski has been involved in founding and coaching inner-city Little League programs in Chicago. In 1994, author Daniel Coyle, who had served as an assistant coach of a team in a league in which Muzikowski had been involved, published a work of non-fiction titled Hardball: A Season in the Projects. Although this book focused on the children in the baseball league, it also devoted some attention to the coaches, including Muzikowski.
In 1993, Paramount acquired the motion picture rights to the book; several years later, in 2001, it released the Hardball film. The film told the story of a Little League coach named Conor O’Neill. Although the movie claimed that it was “a fictitious story and no actual persons, events or organizations have been portrayed,” the O’Neill character had many similarities to Muzikowski. Both came from Irish-Catholic working-class backgrounds; both were involved in a bar fight in which they cut their hand; both were jailed as a result; both experienced the death of their father and financial difficulties. Nevertheless, there were also differences between the real Muzikowski and the fictional O’Neill. Some were benign and others painted O’Neill as a far less reputable figure. On the neutral side, there is nothing in the name “Conor O’Neill” that would make one think of “Robert Muzikowski.” Also, O’Neill is single with no children, unlike Muzikowski. O’Neill coached only one team, while Muzikowski cofounded and ran more than one league, in addition to coaching his teams. Other differences were more troublesome: unlike Muzikowski, who had a history of alcohol and drug abuse that he successfully overcame, O’Neill was still an alcoholic at the time of the events portrayed in the film; O’Neill was a compulsive gambler; and O’Neill’s original motivation for becoming involved in the team was a selfish desire to pay off a gambling debt.
Muzikowski was not flattered by the attention he received because of the film. To the contrary, he was convinced that the movie was a thinly disguised biography of him, although at one point he conceded that no fewer than three characters in the film could be construed to be him. Muzikowski felt that the movie portrayed him in a false and unflattering light, implying wrongly that he (like the O’Neill character) had a drinking problem and that he (like O’Neill) became a Little League coach in order to pay off a gambling debt, rather than out of a desire to help children. Offended and determined to protect his name, Muzikowski sued Paramount for defamation and false light invasion of privacy under Illinois law.
The district court ruled in favor of the Paramount, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit sent the case back ruling that the district court wrongly granted Paramount’s motion to dismiss under Illinois law. On remand, the district court then granted summary judgment to Paramount and even sanctioned Muzikowski’s lawyers for violating court orders. The Seventh Circuit then affirmed the district court in finding that Muzikowski failed to show that people would necessarily conclude that the character of Conor O’Neill was in fact him.
The CSI case seems a much closer issue and warrants a trial. It is simply bizarre that a successful write and producer would engage in such a juvenile act — using a major television program for a personal peeve. It hardly takes Dr. Gil Grissom and a LPC Portable Fuming Chamber to find the link to the real estate deal. It is not necessarily a slam-dunk, however, in light of cases like Muzikowski. Indeed, Goldfinger appears to have forgotten the advice of CSI’s Catherine Willows: “If something doesn’t feel right to you, it usually isn’t.”
For the full story, click here.