Burkhalter Kessler Clement & George LLP‘s trial team of Alton Burkhalter, Dan Kessler and Keith Butler have now completed two phases of a three-phase trial for the creators of the television series Columbo. Burkhalter Kessler Clement & George LLP‘s clients are William Link and Christine Levinson Wilson, the daughter of the late Richard Levinson. Link and Levinson created, wrote and produced a number of award-winning TV shows for Universal Studios, including Murder She Wrote, Mannix, and Columbo.
Alton Burkhalter extended his jury trial win streak with Phase one, where the jury returned unanimous 12-0 verdicts in less than 90 minutes on all questions put to them. This was significant because it established a baseline of substantial damages and dispelled Universal’s affirmative defense based on statute of limitations.
Dan Kessler led the team to victory on Phase 2, in which a number of other high stakes issues were tried in a bench trial before the Honorable Judge Richard Burdge. At the conclusion of Phase 2, the trial court awarded Plaintiffs additional damages, including prejudgment interest, which establishes a baseline of $80 million in damages heading into phase 3.
The is a classic “Hollywood Accounting” case. Nearly 50 years ago, Universal agreed to pay Link and Levinson a percentage of profits received from Columbo. Despite the fact that Columbo was extremely popular and critically acclaimed (winning Emmy awards as well as other accolades), Universal insisted over the years that the show was never profitable. Under the terms of the 1971 contract, Universal was only required to provide an accounting statement to Link and Levinson if Universal’s accounting showed a profit. Unbeknownst to Link and Levinson, Universal was taking improper deductions, thereby keeping the show in the red. In the face of consistent denials of profits, in 2013 Mr. Link demanded an accounting. For 3 years, Universal did not respond at all. Then, out of the clear blue, Universal sent its very first accounting to Mr. Link in late 2016-along with a check for $2.3 million. Based on this first accounting statement, Link and Levinson felt more was owed, retained counsel and promptly sued to enforce their rights.
Universal denied that they made any improper deductions to the accounting. Universal also tried to claim that Link and Levinson were too late in suing-even though Universal had never sent an accounting statement before 2016. The jury disagreed. And so did the judge.
Phase 3 will commence shortly, and will be tried before a panel of three CPAs. A victory on just a few of the remaining issues set to be tried during phase 3 could bump total damages to over $100 million.
This trial marked the first time in nearly 20 years that Alton and Dan tried a case together, the last one also being a jury trial that resulted in an $11 million jury verdict.