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JUL
27
2 YEARS

Don Johnson's $50 Million 'Nash Bridges' Award at Risk in Court Appeal

Appellate justices signal discomfort with the way that pre-judgment interest was calculated by judge and jury. One justice calls it "misconduct."

Don Johnson
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Don Johnson

Don Johnson might be in danger of losing out on sizable portion of the $50 million that Rysher Entertainment has been ordered to hand over for the hit CBS cop show, Nash Bridges.

Two years ago, Johnson got a huge win in a California courtroom when a jury delivered a whopping verdict on claims he was stiffed out of his 50 percent copyright interest in the show. Originally, the award was $23.2 million in damages, which a judge increased to $50 million after factoring in interest.

On Friday, an appeal was heard before a three-justice panel at the 2nd District Court of Appeal. As Johnson and his wife listened intently from the gallery, at least one of the appellate court justices was sympathetic to Rysher's view that juror misconduct occurred, putting a good deal of money at stake.

Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that the appellate judges at the hearing signaled that the original award could be trimmed from $50 million all the way down to $20 million. Rysher wants a new trial.

The jury delivered its verdict in July 2010. In coming up with the $23.2 million in damages, the panel is said to have taken a base award of $15 million and added $8.2 million in pre-judgment interest to compensate Johnson for having to wait on the money since 2001, when the show ended its six season run. The problem is that only the judge is supposed to calculate that interest.

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Rysher's attorneys are arguing that as a result, the whole process was tainted and that the award should be thrown out in favor of a new trial. John Taylor at Horvitz & Levy, representing Rysher, analogized the sitution to a jury improperly convicting a defendant on the ground that he must be guilty because he didn't testify and therefore must have something to hide.

Justice Paul Turner aggressively challenged Christopher Landau, the attorney for Johnson, and said that what the jury did amounted to misconduct. "I'm sorry to mess you up like this," Turner told Landau at the hearing.

Landau responded that the trial judge held a hearing to address the question of how the jury had reached its conclusions about damages, examined "ambiguous" evidence, and didn't find any cause for a retrial.

The appellate justices also expressed some concern with how the trial judge himself had calculated interest. That could lead the appeals court to reverse the jury's award at least in part.

But Rysher may not get everything it wants.

In the appeal, Rysher argues that the lawsuit brought in 2009 over a series that aired in the 1990s is barred by the statute of limitations. The company argues that a tolling agreement that allowed the case to go forward anyway was actually limited to four years under California legal precedent. The judges weren't very receptive to that argument, according to sources.

Rysher might also be hard-pressed to win on one of its other major points on appeal -- that what Johnson was owed shouldn't have been determined by the copyright provision of the contract, which entitles the actor to a 50 percent share, but rather the portion of the contract that contains a formula for "adjusted gross receipts," which allows Rysher to deduct production costs and distribution fees before paying Johnson. Rysher claims that Nash Bridges was a very expensive show to produce and that it was actually in the red.

Rysher says that a judge erred by not interpreting the contract himself. At the trial court, the judge found the terms of the agreement ambiguous and left it to the jury. Unless the appellate court finds unambigousness in the contract, Rysher will have to live with the jury's ultimate conclusion about how to divide revenue.

An official decision should be coming within 90 days.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner