Judge Grants Partial New Trial in 'Survivor' Suit

The tribe has spoken, but the game isn't over.
Courtesy of CBS
'Survivor: Kaoh Rong'

The dramatic twists during a typical season of Survivor pale in comparison to the legal battle between two men who were behind the scenes at the beginning of the series. 

Mark Burnett's ex-business partner Conrad Riggs was sued in 2012 by consultant Layne Britton, who claims he was shorted at least $14 million in connection to his work on Survivor and other Burnett shows. 

Following a February trial, a jury found Riggs' company Cloudbreak Entertainment was liable for breach of contract and awarded Britton about $489,000 in damages.

In response, Britton's attorneys filed a motion for a new trial on damages, calling the jury's verdict "simply inexplicable."

During an April 5 hearing, Los Angeles County Superior Court judge Frederick Shaller said the attorneys on both sides "litigated the heck out of this case" and he needed more time to consider if a new trial was warranted.

Shaller's decision is in: He declined to grant a new trial on damages for the breach of contract claim, but found the jury's verdict on damages for the common count of money had and received is inadequate. 

The wording used on the verdict form asked if "Cloudbreak or Riggs" received money intended to benefit Britton and failed to give it to him, and the jury answered “yes.” But when it came to connecting an amount to those questions, the jury entered $0. 

"There is not reasonable basis for the jury to conclude that damages to Plaintiff under the common counts theory would be zero," Shaller writes in the decision. 

Shaller referenced a spreadsheet in evidence that itemizes the salary and other distributions Cloudbreak made to Riggs.

"There were substantial distributions made to Riggs that are traced directly to payments made by Burnett during that period after the limitations cut-off that would potentially be funds in the possession of Riggs which are owed to Britton," he writes. 

Shaller says it is unclear whether the jury found Cloudbreak or Riggs or both liable on those issues and granted a new trial limited to the counts of money had and received.

But Shaller agreed with the jury that the statute of limitations applies in the case, which renders issues concerning two other verdict form answers moot.  

According to the lawsuit, Britton claims a 2000 agreement with Riggs entitles him to 35 percent of Riggs’ share of revenue from Survivor from season two forward and 40 percent of Riggs’ share for other shows he worked on for Burnett. He says Riggs didn't start paying him until 2002 and stopped paying in 2006, but he didn't sue until 2012. 

Britton's attorneys argued Riggs tricked their client into not suing, but Shaller found Britton, who is a licensed attorney, knowingly let the statute of limitations expire. 

"Britton had knowledge that he was being harmed by Riggs' delay for failure to pay and should have acted to protect his rights," Shaller writes. "As he failed to do so, he is not entitled to the benefit of equitable estoppel to preclude application of the statute of limitations defense."

In response to verdict form questions about how much Britton was damaged prior to the statute of limitations cut-off dates, the jurors answered the amount they chose to award ($0), rather than the amount that could have been awarded if it weren't time-barred.

Britton's attorneys argued that figure was necessary and the error warranted a new trial to determine what should have been entered on those lines.

Shaller disagreed, although he did acknowledge the $0 figure was likely an error. 

He found the "jury's determination did not lead to a miscarriage of justice" because the figure would be merely advisory in case the court found Riggs could not use the statute of limitations defense — which it does not — and because Britton's attorneys could have objected to the verdict before the jury was discharged.

Shaller also granted prejudgment interest in the amount of 10 percent, accruing since the date the suit was filed. As of March 8, he estimates, that's an additional $165,200 for Britton. 

A hearing in the case is set for May 25.