Judge Tosses $70M Verdict Against Universal in 'Columbo' Profits Fight

A Los Angeles judge has granted the studio's motion to set aside the verdict and allow a new trial in the profit participation dispute.

Universal won't have to write a $70.6 million damages check to the creators of Columbo as a Los Angeles judge has granted its motion for a new trial.

William Link and the heirs of Richard Levinson, through their corporate entities, in November 2017 sued Universal City Studios alleging they were shorted on profits from the 1970s detective series. A jury in March sided with the creators, finding Universal isn't allowed to a distribution fee from gross profits when it acts as distributor. On Oct. 31, a judgment of $70.6 million was entered against the company.

On Nov. 5, Universal asked the court to either grant a new trial or enter judgment in favor of the studio notwithstanding the jury's verdict. Universal argued the jury wasn't properly instructed on the meaning of "photoplays." The parties' agreement allows the studio to deduct standard fees for the distribution of photoplays, according to the motion, and the court didn't rule Columbo episodes qualified as photoplays until after the jury entered its verdict because the trial was split into multiple phases.

"Had the jury been instructed on the proper meaning of 'Photoplays,' it would have had no choice but to conclude that Universal does have the right to deduct its distribution fees," states the motion.

Judge Richard Burdge Jr. on Monday granted Universal's motion for a new trial and set aside the verdict, agreeing that the jury should have been instructed on the meaning of that key contract provision. 

Daniel Petrocelli of O'Melveny & Myers, who was retained by NBCUniversal after the trial, sent The Hollywood Reporter a statement in response to the decision: “Needless to say, we are pleased the Court agreed with our position on the pivotal contract issue and look forward to concluding what little remains of the case."