Warner Bros., in an action aimed at undermining one of its key legal foes, sued litigator Marc Toberoff in Los Angeles federal court on Friday, alleging the attorney engaged in a "scheme" to "enrich himself" by wrongfully seeking ownership rights to the studio's Superman franchise.
The lawsuit amounts to a gambit to discredit Toberoff, an aggressive attorney who has earned the enmity of two of the biggest studios in Hollywood for going after them on behalf of clients who claim they are the rightful heirs of the copyrights behind such valuable characters as the Man of Steel and several of those under the Marvel banner, now owned by Disney.
In a 56-page complaint, Warner Bros.' DC Comics alleges that Toberoff entered into a "web of collusive" deals with the heirs of Superman's co-creators, Jerome Siegel and Jospeh Shuster, that caused the families to repudiate their agreements with DC Comics in a bid to recapture the copyight to the character. The suit further alleges that Toberoff maneuvered to secure "control of the largest financial stake" in the Superman rights through his own companies.
Warner Bros. believes that if Toberoff's efforts succeed, it could put the entire Superman franchise --including future movies, TV shows and comics -- at risk. With its suit, the studio is hoping the court will confirm DC's ownership of Superman and end what it sees as any interference with those rights.
The salvo is the latest exchange of fire between Warner Bros./DC Comics and Toberoff, who previously won rulings returning a share of the profits to the Siegel and Shuster heirs relating to certain Superman rights.
Warner is basing its case in part on a seven-page cover letter that was sent to the studio anonymously in December 2008 that implicates Toberoff, along with confidential documents that Torberoff claims were stolen from his office. A court ruled that the documents were privileged, and within 24 hours Warner turned them over to a court officer. The cover letter, however, was not and was attached as an exhibit to Friday's lawsuit.
Toberoff described the anonymous letter as defamatory, adding "this is going to come back to bite Warner Bros."
As for the lawsuit, Toberoff blasted it as "entirely frivolous ... rather than Warner Bros. litigating the remainder of this case on the merits, they have brought this vicious lawsuit aimed at me as a way of pressuring my clients to license back the [Superman] rights to them. This is an obvious pressure tactic ... we're not a bit deterred from the merits of this case by these thug tactics."
Toberoff said Warner Bros. and DC are erroneously claiming that he has a financial interest in the pending Superman lawsuits, when the only interest he has is a "contingent legal fee ... since when is that against the law? They're just trying to get rid of the lawyer who has been so successful against them."
For its part, Warner issued a statement saying, "DC has spent decades working constructively with our talent and creators and we look foward to a speedy resolution of these matters so we can continue to share Superman with all his many fans for generations to come."
Friday's suit comes shortly after Warner Bros. hired high-powered legal gun Daniel Petrocelli of O'Melveny & Myers to fight the copyright terminations from the Siegel and Shuster heirs.
Petrocelli has prevailed in Hollywood before. The defense attorney helped Disney win a long and costly lawsuit against the heirs to Winnie the Pooh merchandising rights. The case was thrown out in 2004 after Petrocelli introduced evidence that the Stephen Slesinger family had hired private investigators to dig through Disney's trash for company documents relating to Pooh's revenue. The judge determined the documents had been stolen and gave the Slesingers an unfair legal advantage.
The attorney's first major claim to fame was representing Fred Goldman, the father of murder victim Ron Goldman, in the 1997 wrongful death civil suit against O.J. Simpson, who was ordered to pay the family $8.5 million in damages. Another high-profile Petrocelli client was former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who is serving a 24-year sentence in federal prison in Colorado for securities fraud, insider trading and other counts.
-- Claudia Eller