'Ghost Hunters' Ownership Dispute Interred
(CN) - Claims that NBC stole the idea behind the hit Syfy reality show "Ghost Hunters" are too untimely to proceed, a California appeals court ruled.
Larry Montz and Daena Smoller alleged that, from 1996 through 2001, they pitched NBC Universal on their idea for "Ghost Expeditions: Haunted."
Their "idea was a reality television series where 'professional paranormal investigators' would lead a team that included 'normal people with regular jobs' to investigate haunted houses throughout the country," according to the ruling published Monday from California's Second Appellate District.
NBC ended up passing on the show, but the Syfy cable channel debuted "Ghost Hunters" on Oct. 6, 204.
Montz and Smoller sued NBCUniversal Media and Universal Televesion Network more than two years later, on Nov. 8, 2006.
The complaint alleged that NBC stole Montz and Smoller's idea and partnered with Pilgrim Films & Television to produce "Ghost Hunters."
U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper dismissed the case, however, after finding that federal copyright law pre-empted their state-law claims.
Though a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit initially affirmed, the en banc federal appeals court reversed and revived all of Montz and Smoller's claims in May 2011.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the ruling, Montz and Smoller voluntarily dismissed their copyright infringement claim and by December had refiled their remaining state claims in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
NBC challenged the suit under the two-year statute of limitations, but the court refused to grant NBC summary judgment.
The Second Appellate District granted the networks a major victory Monday, however, in issuing them a peremptory writ of mandate directs the trial court to the motion of summary judgment against Montz and Smoller.
"With regard to both [Montz and Smoller's] breach of implied contract and breach of confidence claims, the causes of action accrued no later than the date when the 'Ghost Hunters' show was released to the general public, i.e., October 6, 2004," Judge Nora Manella wrote for a three-judge panel. "Thus, [Montz and Smoller] had until October 5, 2006 to file their lawsuit. They did not do so until November 8, 2006. Accordingly, [Montz and Smoller's] causes of action were time-barred."
No exception applied to delay accrual of the claims, the court also found. Although Montz and Smoller said they did not realize that their idea might have been stolen until Smoller saw an episode of "Ghost Hunters" in 2005, they failed to show that they were unable to discover their claims earlier, according to the ruling.
As a matter of law, the pair's causes of action were complete on the day of the initial broadcast of the show because the marketability of their ideas and concepts for the show they had pitched were destroyed by their disclosure to the public, the court found.
Montz and Smoller "do not contend, nor does the evidence show, that petitioners fraudulently concealed the broadcast from them, or that they lacked a meaningful ability to view it," Manella wrote.
The mere fact that the pair "did not personally view the program until sometime after the first broadcast is irrelevant, as 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 plaintiff to the same degree it was accessible to every other member of the public,'" the 22-page ruling states.
Although the show only broadcast on the Syfy cable television network, public disclosure to even a limited audience is sufficient.
It is also relevant that Montz and Smoller were put on inquiry notice prior to the public broadcast of the show, thanks to a July 22, 2004, email from NBC Universal's director of development for alternative programming at Syfy, Robyn Lattaker-Johnson, to Montz and Smoller's producer, Eric Mofford.
The email informed Mofford about "Ghost Hunters," which was described as a "docu soap about a group of plumbers-by-day/ghost-hunters-by-night that set out on missions to disprove ghost or paranormal activity," according to the ruling.
Mofford forwarded the email to Montz, and the pair discussed whether the show was based off of Montz and Smoller's concept, the court noted.
That Montz and Smoller "did not understand the meaning of the term 'docu-soap' and did not view an episode of the Ghost Hunters show until 2005 is legally irrelevant," Manella wrote. "Once [they] were on notice, they were charged with information that could have been gained by examining public records."
Though filed on April 1, the court did not publish its opinion until Monday.