Hollywood Docket: When Can It Be Negligent to Film a Health Tragedy?

Plus, other entertainment law news including an investor suit against WWE, Disney's deal over former Weinstein Company assets, and peace in the soap opera world.
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

In the years ahead, hopefully after the coronavirus situation is under control, courts may look back and consider whether entertainment companies did anything where they could to avoid tragedy or should be deemed legally responsible. Any civil lawsuits to come may have judges looking at who had duties to others, who breached those duties by failing to take reasonable measures, what harm ensued and what were the proximate causes of those injuries. There will also likely be a lot of attention on the risk that people assumed given what we all know about this pandemic.

In the meantime, a California appellate court Thursday issued a timely opinion about a seaman on a commercial fishing vessel who accidentally sliced up his hands with hooks and fish gills and eventually had fingers amputated. The events unfolded before reality-TV cameras. In fact, the dramatic scene was caught for the Nat Geo show Big Fish Texas. According to the seaman who lost his fingers, he asked the producer on board and a cameraman for help and was allegedly promised a helicopter off the boat. That didn't happen.

What makes the case somewhat unusual and the reason why it's a precedential decision is the maritime context. Under the Jones Act, a seaman may sue employers for negligence. Here, Asylum Entertainment — the production company — didn't formally employ the plaintiff, but the man nevertheless argued that he was a borrowed servant, that the ship he worked for loaned him to producers. Thus, he claimed Asylum was vicariously liable.

That argument didn't pass muster.

"[T]he undisputed evidence establishes that Asylum did not have the right to control what happened aboard The M/V Black Jack IV," states the opinion. "Neither the producer nor cameraman on board the vessel controlled how plaintiff or any other crew member did his job; at most, they asked crew members to repeat or explain what they were doing for the camera."

The rest of the opinion (read here) gets into other principles of maritime tort law, including how there's no duty to rescue under unless one can establish a special relationship between the parties, or that voluntary but grossly negligent efforts were made to rescue, or that the defendant took charge of a "helpless" person. In the end, the guy who lost fingers also lost his appeal.

– The NBA, NHL, MLB and NCAA have all suspended or canceled games. In contrast, as of publishing time, World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. still plans to move forward with Wrestlemania 36 in Tampa, Florida. As the lack of cancellation raises eyebrows, the WWE has been hit with an investor lawsuit over one of its other secrets. As alleged in a complaint, the WWE came under fire about 18 months ago for its willingness to work with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The relationship included a rights agreement with a Saudi-controlled SatCaster and live events in the country. Then came the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and some open criticism by WWE leaders at the Saudis. "Unbeknownst to investors, the events in late 2018 fomented simmering tensions between WWE and the Saudi government," states the complaint (read here), which then recounts early termination of the broadcast agreement. The suit claims WWE is liable for making false statements or failing to disclose adverse facts soon enough.

– Disney has come to a settlement with Spyglass, the entity that purchased assets once belonging to The Weinstein Company. The proposed deal requires a judge's signoff and was submitted in Delaware Bankruptcy Court on Thursday, just a day after Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for sexual assault. Among the terms of the settlement: Spyglass pays Disney nearly $750,000 and gets to assume rights to Bernard and the Genie, Cricket in Times Square and Firework Maker’s Daughter; Spyglass also gets contracts associated with Halloween and Scary Movie even if rights to produce derivative versions have lapsed; Spyglass won't assume such titles as Hoodwinked, Scream: The TV Series and Artemis Fowl; and perhaps most intriguingly, Disney has agreed to waive all claims it may have against debtors "except with respect to all rights Disney has in connection with tort claims involving Harvey Weinstein."

– According to a notice filed Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, Sony Pictures Television has settled with Cordray Productions over an alleged plot to destroy the long-running soap opera, Days of Our Lives. In the suit, Corday asserted that Sony hadn't tried hard enough to distribute the series, miscalculated profits and deflated the licensing fee to NBC, but those claims took a big hit in a ruling this past August. Now the two sides have apparently come to resolution. No details on the agreement, although it happens after Days of Our Lives was renewed for a 56th season and the show downsized much of its cast.