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NBCUniversal Media, LLC v. Superior Court

California Court of Appeals issues peremptory writ of mandate, vacating trial court’s order and concluding that plaintiffs’ claims of breach of implied contract and breach of confidence based on alleged appropriation of television show concept were barred by statute of limitations.

Petitioners NBCUniversal Media, LLC, formerly known as NBC Universal, Inc., and Universal Television Network (the networks) sought a writ of mandate in the California Court of Appeals directing the Los Angeles Superior Court to vacate its order denying petitioners’ motion for summary judgment and to enter an order granting the motion for summary judgment against real parties in interest Larry Montz and Daena Smoller. The California Court of Appeals issued a peremptory writ of mandate.

Plaintiffs had sued the networks in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging breach of implied contract and breach of confidence in connection with concepts they had pitched for a television series titled “Ghost Expeditions: Haunted.” According to the complaint, the networks misappropriated, used, and exploited plaintiffs’ concepts by producing the hit series “Ghost Hunters” without plaintiffs’ permission and without compensating them.

The networks filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that plaintiffs’ claims were time-barred by the applicable two-year statute of limitations, but the trial court denied the motion. The trial court found that plaintiffs filed their action on November 8, 2006, only a month after the two-year statute of limitations would have expired based on the public release date for the show of October 6, 2004. The court held that there was evidence to explain the one-month delay, including that plaintiffs were informed in July 2004 that “Ghost Hunters” was a “docu-soap” but did not know the meaning of the term; that Montz could not recall the date on which he was aware that the concepts were being used improperly; and that Smoller did not see an episode of the show until 2005.

The networks filed a verified petition for writ of mandate, seeking an order directing the superior court to set aside and vacate its order denying summary judgment. In issuing the writ, the Court of Appeals noted that plaintiffs’ two causes of action, breach of implied contract and breach of confidence, were both governed by a two-year statute of limitations period. According to the court, plaintiffs’ claims accrued no later than the date when the “Ghost Hunters” show was released to the general public: October 6, 2004. While plaintiffs contended that they were entitled to delayed accrual of their causes of action under the discovery rule because they did not see an episode of “Ghost Hunters” until sometime in 2005, the court rejected their argument. The mere fact that plaintiffs did not personally view the program until sometime after the first broadcast was irrelevant, because the discovery rule does not operate to delay accrual of a cause of action beyond the point at which their factual basis became accessible to a plaintiff to the same degree as it was accessible to every other member of the public. That “Ghost Hunters” was broadcast on the Syfy channel rather than released in theaters did not alter the discovery rule’s applicability. Also, plaintiffs were on inquiry notice prior to the public broadcast of “Ghost Hunters,” as a representative of the networks had e-mailed plaintiffs’ representative, informing him of the “Ghost Hunters” show. Plaintiffs’ argument that they were told that “Ghost Hunters” was a docu-soap and that they did not understand the meaning of the term was legally irrelevant. So, too, was the fact that they did not view the show until 2005.