Trial Begins Over 'Survivor' Consultant's Claim of Millions in Unpaid Fees

Consultant Layne Leslie Britton sued Conrad Riggs, a former business partner of show creator Mark Burnett, claiming he was cheated out of his share of the profits.
2015's 'Survivor' finale group

The latest Survivor competition isn’t set in a distant tropical locale. It’s happening in a Los Angeles courtroom.

Two consultants behind the mega-hit reality series are battling to outwit, outplay and outlast one another in a jury trial — with millions of dollars at stake.

In 2012, Layne Leslie Britton sued Conrad Riggs, a former business partner of Survivor creator Mark Burnett. Britton argues he helped to create the innovative and lucrative financial agreement Burnett made with CBS to share advertising risk and revenue for Survivor and Riggs cheated him out of his share of the profits.

Opening statements began Tuesday as Jeffery D. McFarland of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP led off on behalf of Britton, painting a picture of a man who did a favor for and then was duped by his friend.

“Sometimes people steal with a gun and a knife,” McFarland said to the jury of five men and seven women. “Sometimes they steal from you by lying to you.”

According to the lawsuit, in exchange for Britton’s advice and consultation on business matters pertaining to the reality series, he was entitled 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.

McFarland walked the jury through a timeline of Britton’s business relationship with Riggs. He said they came to the agreement in 2000, but payments didn’t start until 2002 and they stopped in 2006.

At the time Riggs blamed his employment status with Burnett, according to McFarland, who showed a 2007 email from Riggs to Britton promising to pay him per their agreement and closing with “I value our friendship and appreciate your patience.”

Then McFarland played a deposition video of Riggs that he said shows paying Britton wasn’t the plan.

“I felt like, looking at the situation, he had been paid enough for his work,” Riggs said in the video. “I hadn’t decided whether to keep paying him anymore or not.”

Eric M. George of Browne George Ross LLP began his statements for the defense by hailing the massive success of Survivor and attributing it to two men — not three.

George said Burnett and Riggs are “extreme workaholics” who worked tirelessly around the clock to make the series a reality, while Britton did “precious little.”

Britton’s claim that he conceived the deal structure for Survivor is “simply preposterous,” according to George, who said Burnett had been using advertising splits in deals for years.

George argued Riggs was under the impression he hired Britton, an active member of the California bar, to give him legal advice and paid him $1.8 million for part-time work done over the course of a year and a half.

During the course of the litigation, George said, Riggs found out that Britton had “parroted” the legal information he was giving to Riggs from other attorneys.

“To add insult to injury, not only did he not do what he was supposed to but frankly he was overpaid,” said George.

Riggs countersued Britton in 2013, claiming he was acting as an attorney and should be held liable for professional negligence and breach of fiduciary duties for putting his own financial interests above his client’s.

However, those claims were tossed out in October when Judge Frederick C. Shaller granted partial summary judgment in favor of Britton, finding he was not an attorney for Riggs or his company Cloudbreak Entertainment and therefore owed them no fiduciary duty.

Both sides agree this case is about a contract and whether or not that contract was honored.

As Britton and Riggs take the stand, the jury will have to decide whose interpretation of the words to trust: Britton, who says he was a business consultant whose ideas got the show on the air when no one wanted it, or Riggs, who says he was paying for legal advice he now knows didn’t come from Britton.

This isn’t the first times Riggs has gone to court over Survivor. In 2008 he sued Burnett over the show’s profits, claiming he was owed $70 million. That case settled in 2012 and shortly thereafter Riggs found himself on the receiving end of this Survivor suit.

If Britton does prevail here, there’s no telling how much he’ll be able to collect from Cloudbreak. The company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December just hours before this trial was set to start, pushing it back two months.