How Bela Lugosi and a small high-tech law firm prevailed in the case of Larry and Curly v. Moe
Jean DeRita sat on the witness stand, in tears. Her husband's storied Hollywood career wasn't supposed to end this way. DeRita was describing the last few years of his life: being wheeled in and out of hospitals and putting off bill collectors who couldn't understand how one of the movie industry's most famous slapstick comics had reached the end of his life with no more than pocket change.
It was exactly that question that brought the widow of Curly Joe DeRita, one of the Three Stooges, to Los Angeles Superior Court last fall. DeRita, now in her mid-seventies, and the grandchildren of Larry Fine, the Stooges' Larry, were locked in a bitter lawsuit against the heirs of the third Stooge, Moe Howard. The Stooges themselves may have passed on, but their heirs seemed intent on perpetuating the pie-tossing: Take this, Numskull!
Moe's heirs for many years had controlled the intellectual-property rights to the Three Stooges. In recent years, the plaintiffs contended, their payments had virtually been cut off. It was as if Moe -- from the grave -- was still delivering those two-finger pokes to the eyes.
The heirs of Larry and Curly Joe were represented by attorneys Earl and Robert Benjamin, Jean DeRita's sons and Curly Joe's stepsons. The third lawyer brought into the fray also owns impeccable Hollywood credentials: Bela G. Lugosi is the son of the actor who played Count Dracula; among his clients are the heirs of the actors who played Frankenstein and Wolfman. More than celebrity, however, the Benjamin brothers wanted Lugosi's experience with intellectual-property law -- and technology. In the 1970s, while still in law school, Lugosi had sued a movie studio for what he said was illegal use of his father's likeness on a variety of products. Lugosi lost the case in the California Supreme Court. Undaunted, he helped push through a California state law in 1984 that makes the name or likeness of a deceased person a property right that can pass to heirs. It was partly under the "Dracula law" that the Three Stooges case proceeded.
Lugosi, who has the oval face, broad nose, and receding hairline of his late father, began by guiding DeRita through her testimony about the financial and medical difficulties she and Curly Joe had experienced. Then the partner in the Los Angeles firm of Hanna and Morton circled for the kill. Lugosi's weapon was a computer system he'd brought into the courtroom that enabled him to show documents to the jury on a 67-inch monitor.
On that screen Lugosi displayed the image of a letter written by Moe's grandson, Jeffrey Scott, to Curly Joe, dated November 8, 1992. For emphasis, Lugosi enlarged several critical lines. "The recession is definitely affecting us," Scott wrote, delivering the bad news. "Three Stooges merchandising is apparently one of the things people can live without during bad financial times." With the letter, Scott had sent a check for $3,130.80.
Next on the screen was a letter Scott wrote the same day, this time to his mother. Here the news on royalties was considerably better. Again Lugosi blew up the key lines on the screen. "Yes, it's true," Scott wrote. "The total you have received for feature rights is a whopping $166,766.50!"
The combination of DeRita's emotional testimony and the larger-than-life presentation of key documents amounted to a home run for Lugosi, Earl and Robert Benjamin, and their clients, who won the case and damages totaling $4.3 million. (The case is on appeal.) Perhaps more important, they also won a ruling determining that Moe's heirs were not the owners of the Stooges' intellectual-property rights but rather managers of the property for the Stooges' heirs.
"Blowing up the documents on the screen was a very dramatic way of imprinting them on the jury's mind," says Lugosi. The opposing side did not use computer presentation. According to Lugosi, "The effect was amazing. When the other side talked about their documents, the jury looked to the screen. But it was blank."
If he came back to argue a case, even Perry Mason would want access to the technological advances that promise to change forever the practice of law. Desktop computers, on-line research, and computerized billing services no longer make a firm technologically fit. A new generation of technology has enhanced the craft of litigation and given its practitioners a competitive advantage in a variety of ways. That technology includes extensive use of computers in the courtroom and database systems for the storage and retrieval of vast libraries of documents.
Some small law firms -- Hanna and Morton has just 14 lawyers and 20 full- and part-time support staffers -- are using the new technology to compete for top clients -- and once inside the courtroom, to gain an edge in presenting cases to juries. "We're all practicing law the way Abe Lincoln did," says Edward S. Renwick, the Hanna and Morton partner who is most interested in technology. "The basics haven't changed. But we're using technology that permits us to think better."
The firm's commitment to technology starts inside the office. In April 1994, Hanna and Morton installed Novell NetWare; in the spring of 1995, the firm rewired the network with an Ethernet system, comprising high-speed cable that will be capable of supporting the next generation of communications equipment. The cost was more than $60,000. But the new network will be able to transmit visual images as well as data, enabling Hanna and Morton to take advantage of CD-ROM capability. In future cases, documents will be scanned onto CD-ROM disks, which will be stored on a server and available on-line. When attorneys need a document, they'll be able to access an image of it instantaneously on their desktop computers, rather than spend time rummaging through file cabinets for hard copy. "We spend a lot of time now logging documents and looking for them later," says Renwick. "In the long run this will be a savings and will help our lawyers think through cases better."
In the Three Stooges case, which was heard before the new network was set up, Lugosi and his legal team had thousands of pages of documents scanned into a desktop computer. Not only could he pull up documents on the desktop computer; he also could search a database on his laptop for names or concepts that needed further study. For example, when he wanted to find every reference to a certain person, Lugosi could generate a list from the database of every paper in which that person's name appeared and then call up each document on the desktop computer. More precise searches would highlight only those documents in which the person was mentioned in relation to something else. The alternative to a computerized database is hunting by hand through files and reading the documents to find the appropriate material -- a costly, time-consuming, and error-prone task.
The firm also uses software called CaseView for Windows, from Discovery Products, in Mount Prospect, Ill., that provides instantaneous access to depositions and testimony. In a practice followed for decades, court reporters record testimony by typing symbols onto special tape, which is used later to produce printouts that are distributed to all parties. With CaseView, the court reporter's output appears on the user's laptop computer as the words are typed. Lugosi makes notations right on the screen, marks important passages for later study, and searches earlier testimony for possible inconsistencies -- all while a deposition is going on. "At the lunch break you have a transcript," he says. "You can figure out questions for the next session."
Perhaps most impressive is the system the firm uses to present evidence. Hanna and Morton currently represents a Fortune 500 corporation whose degreasing equipment leaked 6,000 gallons of solvent, polluting groundwater beneath the plant. The company contends that the leak was caused by a defect in the design of the equipment and is suing the manufacturer. In a typical case like this, lawyers use a variety of graphics drawn on cardboard and displayed on an easel to show jurors how something may have happened. But operations inside the degreasing equipment were so complicated that traditional techniques could not have conveyed a clear picture. So Hanna and Morton persuaded its client to pay upward of $100,000 to DecisionQuest, in Torrence, Calif., to help trace the solvents through the defective piece of equipment and in the groundwater, and to produce an animated simulation of the progression.
The computer simulation of a degreasing operation won't challenge Pocahontas for an Academy Award, but it serves its purpose just as well. The court saw a cross-section of the plant, drawn to scale, and simulations of liquids moving through pipes and tanks -- all of which showed what Renwick argued was the fateful design flaw that had caused the solvent spill. "It would be hard to prove the point without the animation," he says. "Animation makes the process so easy to see."
In fact, every presentation system that Hanna and Morton uses in the courtroom makes things easy for the judge and the jury -- and makes an impression as well. Traditionally, in addition to mounting evidence on an easel, documents such as letters and reports are passed around from one member of the jury to another. "When you pass documents to 12 people plus alternate jurors, it takes forever," says Lugosi. "And juries don't like it when lawyers fumble around for things."
In the Three Stooges trial, Lugosi and the Benjamin brothers used a presentation system developed by Trial Presentation Technologies, in Culver City, Calif., which supplied a similar system for use in the O. J. Simpson murder trial. The judge, the jury, and counsel all were given monitors. A single keystroke by a computer operator brought to the screen charts, diagrams, time lines, and other documents. Lugosi and his team manipulated the documents to highlight or enlarge key passages. "I think that the technology gave us an edge," he says. "It enabled us to present the facts in a convincing way."
That edge came at a high price: more than $150,000 for four weeks in the courtroom. At that price, of course, using the equipment in civil suits is appropriate only when a large damage award hangs in the balance.
The Benjamins and Lugosi worked every angle to get all the benefits they could from the computer presentation system. Besides presenting evidence, Lugosi put together some of the Stooges' funniest clips and got the judge's permission to show them periodically to the jury. When jurors began yawning -- having had their fill of bookkeeping entries, accounting charts, and licensing agreements -- pies would start to fly, noggins would get cracked, and cries of "Knucklehead" would fill the air. For a brief moment, at least, bedlam reigned.
Stephen D. Solomon (email@example.com) is an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at New York University.