CBS, 'Hawaii Five-0' Creator's Widow Defeat Big $100 Million Lawsuit (Exclusive)
UPDATED: A judge rules that a deal set up in the 1990s between ex-agent George Litto and Rose Freeman didn't include the right to receive revenue from CBS episodes.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has handed CBS and the widow of late Hawaii Five-0 creator Leonard Freeman a victory in a $100 million dispute that could have impacted the future of the hit crime drama.
The lawsuit came from George Litto, who was Freeman's agent when the first incarnation of Hawaii Five-0 ran on CBS from 1968 to 1980. When Freeman passed away in 1974, Litto renegotiated a deal with CBS giving the network the right to produce the show in the future and shifted responsibility for production from Freeman's company to CBS. In return, CBS gave Rose Freeman a substantial stake in the show and a sweetheart arrangement in which it wouldn't be allowed to recoup production overages.
After the show went off the air, a dispute erupted between CBS and Rose Freeman about who held separated rights like those to a possible movie version. A court case and arbitration commenced, and in 1997 Litto and Freeman -- successfully fighting together against CBS -- entered into an agreement with each other to set up a joint venture to exploit future production opportunities.
When CBS became interested in rebooting Hawaii Five-0, though, it made a deal with Freeman alone and not Litto (no longer an agent), nor their joint company.
In the lawsuit, Litto contended that he was wrongfully cut out of an allegedly improper deal that gave back the benefits of the 1974 agreement.
Earlier this month, Judge Elizabeth Allen White conducted a trial over how to interpret the 1997 agreement between Litto and Freeman. After considering the evidence, she now has issued a proposed statement of decision that the deal didn't transfer rights to the CBS series, and thus, Litto must fail in claims of having been usurped on the later arrangement between Freeman and CBS.
The judge's conclusion was informed by an investigation into various documents and guild agreements.
When Freeman and Litto set up L/F Productions, there was an agreement that Freeman would contribute "reserved rights" to the TV series pursuant to the Writers Guild of America basic agreement when the original Hawaii Five-0 was being set up in the 1960s. Under the guild agreement at the time, that included live television, subscription television, theater television, radio, dramatic, theatrical film, publication and merchandise rights.
Litto brought forward arguments about how other rights were integrated into the agreement, especially rights to all revenues generated from new television productions, but after doing a fine parsing of contractual language, the judge isn't convinced that the deal included anything more than the transfer of reserved rights, which she writes "do not include the right to receive revenue from CBS-produced television episodes."
The judge also refuses to interpret the agreement as referring to "separated rights" and also nods to some extrinsic evidence demonstrating that the purpose of forming the joint company was to make a movie.
Litto was represented by Henry Gradstein, who says he will appeal and also pursue an alternative claim that if the original Hawaii Five-0 deal holds, his client should at least be getting a 10 percent commission.
The Freeman family was represented by Michael Plonsker and Laura Brill. In a statement, Plonsker tells THR:
"Leonard and Rose Freeman’s family is immensely gratified and relieved by the Superior Court’s decision saying “no” to the attempt by Leonard’s former talent agent, George Litto, to interfere with and improperly gain from Leonard’s legacy as the creator of Hawaii Five-0. Litto’s company sued the family just weeks after Rose died, seeking tens of millions of dollars from the current episodes of Hawaii Five-0 and threatening actions to force CBS to take the popular show off the air. The court’s decision constitutes a total vindication for the family and puts a stop to Litto’s decades-long scheme. The court will soon consider claims brought by the Freeman family against Mr. Litto that arise from years of alleged mistreatment of Rose."
In a statement, Gradstein responds:
"George Litto was responsible for transactions generating nearly $30 million for the Freeman family following Leonard Freeman's death in 1974. At Rose Freeman's request 22 years after he was no longer an agent, but a storied film producer and film financier, he partnered with her in 1997 for the future exploitation of the Hawaii Five-0 property, successfully litigating against CBS to obtain the motion picture rights and setting up the picture at Warner Bros. Revenues from future television productions were part of the deal negotiated by her two sets of attorneys. He worked tirelessly on behalf of the Freeman interests and took advantage of no one. The judge's decision was a parsing of language without regard to evidence bearing on the parties' obvious intent to include future television revenues, wrongly deprived Litto of a jury trial and will not withstand appeal."