Judge Allows 'Columbo' Fraud Lawsuit Against Universal

William Link and Richard Levinson say it took 45 years to receive their first accounting statement for the acclaimed detective show.
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'Columbo' star Peter Falk

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alan Rosenfield on Thursday decided that the creators of the 1970s show Columbo sufficiently pleaded contract and fraud claims against Universal City Studios.

Columbo producers William Link and the heirs of Richard Levinson filed the lawsuit in November and allege being shortchanged on profits from the detective series that starred Peter Falk. 

"The television studios are notoriously greedy," stated a complaint. "This case involves outright and obviously intentional dishonesty perpetrated against two iconic talents. Here, Universal decided it just wasn't going to account to Plaintiffs on Columbo. Universal just sat on the money owed to Mr. Link and Mr. Levinson for years without any justification. Universal had never issued a profit participation statement to Plaintiffs."

An accounting statement finally arrived in November 2016 along with a check for $2.3 million.

In defending the lawsuit, Universal's attorney Robert Klieger argued that plaintiffs lacked specificity on how they were allegedly underpaid.

"All we have here is a statement that requires a payment of net profits," Klieger told the judge. "And the we-think-we-are-entitled-to-more is based on information and belief... There's no information pled as to why the plaintiffs believe [they] are entitled to net profits beyond those that have been pled."

Klieger attempted to frame the dispute as one over the timing of accounting statements and payments, and while acknowledging that the Columbo producers have a right to audit books, added that in this instance, "It is highly unusual, and in our view, improper to come before the court and essentially leapfrogging over the ability to do the investigation."

But Rosenfield made Klieger admit the contract didn't require an audit as a prerequisite to a lawsuit and suggested the lack of detailed information was tied to no accounting statements sent until 2016. Over objections, the judge overruled a demurrer.

It likely won't be the last battle over whether plaintiffs have supported claims, but if Link and Levinson's family can get a fraud claim to trial, it would raise the possibility of punitive damages beyond what's owed under contract.

The mystery continues.

"I had to smile when I saw what the name of the series was," the judge said at the hearing. "I thought jokingly about passing out cigars to everybody."