CBS Settles Lawsuit With 'NCIS' Creator (Exclusive)

Donald Bellisario - P 2012
Getty Images

Donald Bellisario - P 2012

On the verge of a trial, CBS has resolved a lawsuit with Donald Bellisario, the creator of hit shows including JAG and NCIS.

Bellisario sued the network in April 2011, claiming he was owed millions of dollars from NCIS: Los Angeles. He alleged that the show was a spinoff of NCIS and JAG, and as such, his contracts with CBS and predecessor Paramount Television entitled him to either a "first opportunity" to work on the series or payments.

The NCIS franchise, with two of the top-rated series on television, has been a financial boon for participants. According to the court records, Bellisario has been compensated over the years by CBS with $116 million; the trial put tens of millions of dollars more for grabs. In recent months, the case has been rocked by news that the 77-year-old has a neurological condition that has led to memory loss, disorientation, unsteadiness and lack of coordination.

A settlement in the case was agreed upon shortly before the parties were scheduled to gather Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court to determine whether the case would go to trial next week. Terms of the deal weren't announced.

"We’re pleased to settle this lawsuit on amicable terms and put this dispute to rest,” CBS Television Studios president David Stapf said in a statement. “Although we differed in opinion on this matter, our admiration, appreciation and respect for Mr. Bellisario has never wavered throughout. We consider him one of the best creative talents of his time and a valued member of the CBS family, whose shows, both past and present, have played an important role in CBS’ success.”

Bellisario brought breach of contract claims largely based upon two deals he had signed in 1992 and 2002.

CBS argued that Bellisario, who was fired from NCIS in 2007, was not entitled under the contracts to a share of NCIS: LA, which it argued was a spinoff of NCIS, not JAG.

Bellisario suffered a major setback in the lawsuit when the judge in the case ruled in June that the plaintiff's claims under the 2002 deal were time-barred. That contract stipulated to an 18-month statute of limitations, so when he sued in April 2011, it came too late because CBS had announced NCIS: LA at its upfront presentation in May 2009.

That meant that Bellisario was going to need to prove at trial that NCIS: LA was a spinoff of JAG. The producer was prepared to make the case there were "elements" and "characters" from JAG that became a part of the new series, and in support, Bellisario's attorneys pointed to statements made at the 2003 TV upfront by CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves that allegedly supported the contention.

But CBS hoped that a trial would never take place.

Friday's hearing was scheduled to determine the question of whether his contract claims under the 1992 deal (which had a longer four-year statute of limitations) were time-barred as well. CBS argued in a motion for summary judgment that the 2002 contract referenced the 1992 deal and thus superseded it.

In the weeks leading up to the possible big-stakes trial, other contentious issues came into play. The most sensitive was the revelation of Bellisario's health condition.

CBS demanded to subpoena Bellisario's medical records and depose his physicians to investigate whether he would have been medically fit to be the showrunner of NCIS: LA, as he argues was his contractual right.

Bellisario's lawyers attacked this demand as an invasion of their client's privacy and a "blatant attempt to harass, intimidate and burden" him.

A judge allowed it but was sensitive to keeping the proceedings moving along with an eye on Bellisario's advanced age.

The settlement means that CBS and Bellisario will be able to avoid a public fight in open court. If Bellisario was concerned about having his medical and financial information come to light, CBS also had reasons to avoid the glare. The network asked the judge to make sure that Bellisario couldn't present himself before a jury as "a 'little guy' standing up against a 'big guy' wealthy corporation."

CBS was represented in the case by Scott Edelman at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. Bellisario was represented by Ronald Nessim at Bird, Marella.

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