Douglas Jordan-Benel has overcome a big hurdle in his lawsuit alleging the 2013 horror smash The Purge stemmed from agents passing along his screenplay titled Settler's Day. On Wednesday, a California federal judge ruled that Jordan-Benel had enough in his amended complaint to go forward with claims against Universal Studios, United Talent Agency and Purge writer-director James DeMonaco.
The lawsuit was filed in July 2014, just as the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, was opening in theaters. “The plot in both works is also virtually identical,” states the lawsuit. “A family must withstand a siege of its fortified home on the one night of the year that killing is legal.”
Jordan-Benel's lawsuit looked to take a hit in February when U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald couldn't find any implied contract made between Jordan-Benel and UTA, which was sent his script for consideration. But the judge allowed the plaintiff to try again, and this time, Jordan-Benel has survived a motion to kill his suit by adding more about his contact with UTA agents David Kramer and Emerson Davis.
“Plaintiff adequately alleges that there was discussion prior to his providing the Script to Davis and Kramer, and that this led to an understanding by both parties that the presentation of the Script was conditioned on payment should it be used at a later point,” the judge writes in his latest decision.
That allows Jordan-Benel's claim of a breach of implied-in-fact against UTA to continue, and the plaintiff is also successful in moving forward on copyright claims against most of the defendants including Universal.
Jordan-Benel alleges that once Kramer and Davis got Settler's Day, it was “packaged” and transferred to DeMonaco, who was represented by another UTA agent, Charlie Ferraro, who worked under Kramer. Jordan-Benel also says he sent his script to Platinum Dunes Productions, which is how it might have ended up at Universal.
Judge Fitzgerald finds the factual allegations to be “plausible,” and signals the next stage in the lawsuit, writing, “Should Plaintiff be able to present evidence obtained during discovery that the Script was sent from Kramer, or Davis, to DeMonaco, he will have plainly established access.”
Jordan-Benel, though, won't get the opportunity to pin Blumhouse Productions nor Overlord Productions — two other companies that worked on The Purge — because “there are no allegations that they had any access to the Script, or were aware that the screenplay for The Purge may have been based on another work.”
Blumhouse and Overlord have thus escaped the lawsuit.
The ruling by Fitzgerald (read here) has more, including items less headlining but arguably of more legal precedence. First, the defendants can't use California's anti-SLAPP statute to beat the implied contract claim because failing to pay for an idea hardly chills First Amendment activity. Second, UTA is still facing a contributory copyright infringement claim over its distribution of Settler's Day, which should be of some concern for talent agents in Hollywood. And third, Jordan-Benel isn't entitled to statutory damages and attorney's fees because he only registered his screenplay with the Copyright Office after The Purge was released. What's important here is that the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, doesn't qualify as a newly commenced act of infringement to make such statutory damages available to him.
Jordan-Benel, represented by attorney Steven Lowe, can still seek gains, profits and advantages derived from Universal, UTA and DeMonaco for possibly using Settler's Day. And even if Jordan-Benel can show his script was reviewed by all the parties, the defendants can still beat the lawsuit by arguing the scripts aren't substantially similar or showing The Purge was independently created. The prospect of more legal fees also could mean a settlement scenario.