Universal Sued Over Tom Cruise Film by Family of Slain DEA Informant

Tom Cruise CinemaCon - H 2015
AP Images

Tom Cruise CinemaCon - H 2015

The daughter of drug trafficker-turned-slain informant Barry Seal has filed a lawsuit in Louisiana against Universal Pictures over its upcoming film, Mena, starring Tom Cruise as Seal, according to local news reports.

The Doug Liman-directed film covers how Seal was recruited by U.S. officials in efforts to bring down drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Seal died in 1986, allegedly by Colombian assassins, raising questions about whether the government should have done a better job protecting him. He apparently left behind a large family.

According to reports of the lawsuit, Universal made a $350,000 deal with Seal's third wife and three children from that marriage for Seal's life story, but now Lisa Seal Frigon, his daughter from his first marriage and the claimed executor of his estate, is coming forward with the allegation that it was her consent that was required.

The lawsuit also targets those who made the deal with Universal.

"Although the Life Story Rights of Adler Berriman Seal are property of the Estate, Defendants Debbie, Aaron, Christina and Dean have failed to remit to the Estate any proceeds which they received from their Agreement with Defendant Universal, but instead converted the proceeds for their own personal use and benefit," states the complaint.

There's no law formally protecting "life rights," but many states have right of publicity or privacy statutes protecting names and likenesses from commercial exploitation, and some states say it applies posthumously as well. The First Amendment might be a bar to such a claim against an expressive work like a motion picture, but given what happened last month over a film featuring Aretha Franklin, all bets are off.

Additionally, studios tend to make "life rights" deals so they can incorporate dramatic, fictional elements without fear of defamation, and indeed, the reported lawsuit over Mena appears to raise this issue as well. The suit says the movie script "contains many factual inaccuracies and thus falsely portrays" Barry Seal and "diminishes the value of his estate."

Universal declined comment about the lawsuit, which seeks an injunction on a film scheduled for release in 2017.