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Semien v. Harpo Films

District court dismisses as time-barred plaintiff’s right of publicity and related claims involving 2007 film The Great Debaters, finding plaintiff’s injuries were sustained at film’s release and that continued marketing and distribution by defendant production companies did not constitute continuing tort that might extend one-year limitations period under Louisiana law. 

Plaintiff, the succession representative for the estate of Melvin B. Tolson, brought a suit on behalf of Tolson’s estate and its heirs against Harpo Films, The Weinstein Company and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Distribution Co. related to the film The Great Debaters, which was released in 2007. Plaintiff alleged that the film, which told the story of Tolson’s time as the debate coach at the historically black Wiley College in the 1930s and starred Denzel Washington as Tolson, unlawfully deprived the estate and its heirs of their share in the film’s profits. Plaintiff filed the suit on March 22, 2017, asserting claims for misappropriation, unjust enrichment, violation of Tolson’s right of publicity, and false advertising and false endorsement under both the Lanham Act and Louisiana law, as well as a claim styled as “fraud, misrepresentation, detrimental reliance.” After a brief stay of the action related to The Weinstein Company’s bankruptcy, the court considered and granted defendants’ motion to dismiss.

The district court disposed of plaintiff’s claims for misappropriation, right of publicity, and false advertising and false endorsement on statute of limitations grounds, finding that each tort-based claim was subject to Louisiana’s one-year limitations period running from the day plaintiff’s injury was sustained. Plaintiff argued that the limitations period had not expired because defendants’ actions in continuing to market and distribute the film long after its initial release and distribution in 2007 constituted continuous torts. The court rejected this argument, finding that “the operating cause of [plaintiff’s] alleged injury is not the continuing marketing and distribution of the film but rather the initial release of the film itself. Furthermore, it was clear, according to the court, that any marketing or distribution of the film occurring subsequent to the film’s release amounted to, at most, the “continuation of the ill effects of said release.” As a result, the one-year limitations period that began to run in December 2007 had long expired.

The court held that plaintiff failed to allege the elements of the claim for detrimental reliance, noting that such claims are “not favored” in Louisiana. Specifically, the court determined that plaintiff had not established the requisite element of a change in position by plaintiff stemming from its reliance on representations by Harpo Films that it would “take care of” Tolson’s heirs. The court found that plaintiff’s allegation that the Tolson family would have otherwise hired lawyers to draft a contract had this representation not been made merely alleged a “hypothetical course of action” that could not underlie a claim for detrimental reliance. The court also rejected plaintiff’s contention that its allegation that the family “understood” they would be compensated satisfied the element of justifiable or reasonable reliance. Finally, the court dismissed plaintiff’s claim for unjust enrichment, stating that such a claim may be pursued only when no other express remedy is available. The fact that plaintiff had unsuccessfully alleged all other claims available to it did not permit an unjust enrichment claim to proceed.