Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Defeats Lawsuit Over 'The Great Debaters'

The Weinstein Co. and MGM were also sued over the 2007 film, which starred and was directed by Denzel Washington.
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'The Great Debaters' (2007)

Oprah Winfrey may still be dealing with fallout from her decision to exit the upcoming Sundance documentary On the Record, which addresses sexual misconduct allegations against Russell Simmons, but she's clear of another public headache as a Louisiana federal judge has tossed a lawsuit against her Harpo Films over The Great Debaters.

The family of Melvin B. Tolson in March 2017 sued Harpo, The Weinstein Co. and MGM over the 2007 film, which starred and was directed by Denzel Washington. David Wayne Semien alleged Tolson's family was "not compensated in any monetary way" for the use of Tolson's name and "unique life experiences" as a professor at Wiley College who, in the 1930s, led the school's debate team to a national championship amid segregation. 

The defendants asked the court to toss the suit, arguing that not only are filmmakers protected by the First Amendment but also that the complaint was filed a decade too late and Louisiana, where Tolson resided, doesn't recognize posthumous rights of publicity, so the rights to his story died with him in 2006.

Then, in March 2018, the matter was stayed pending TWC's bankruptcy until Semien asked the court to unpause the case. The bankruptcy judge granted the request, giving U.S. District Judge S. Maurice Hicks Jr. the green light to consider the defendants' motions to dismiss.

Hicks first addressed whether Semien was too late in bringing the suit. Semien had argued that the alleged injuries didn't just happen when the film debuted, but that they continued as it was marketed and sold. Hicks disagreed, and found that the bulk of Semien's suit was filed more than eight years too late. 

With regard to the remaining claims, Hicks found that the Tolson family's decision not to hire lawyers to draw up contracts in relation to the film because Harpo staffers allegedly told them "we are going to take care of you" isn't enough to sustain a cause of action for detrimental reliance. Lastly, the unjust enrichment claim fails because it is designed to "fill a gap in the law where no express remedy is provided" and  "[e]ven pleading a tort claim prevents a plaintiff from recovering for unjust enrichment."

Hicks granted the motion to dismiss with prejudice. His full decision is posted below.