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Judge denies Disney's request for new trial in 'Millionaire' dispute

December 21, 2010 |  3:39 pm


Disney could be running out of lifelines.

A federal district court judge in Riverside on Tuesday denied the Walt Disney Co.'s attempts to overturn a verdict awarding $319 million in damages and interest to the creators of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

Judge Virginia Phillips denied Disney's motions seeking to throw out the jury's July verdict or to order a new trial in the 6-year-old dispute. Disney has 30 days in which to appeal the decision.

The British creators of the game show, Celador International, sued Disney in 2004, claiming it had been denied its ability to profit from the success of the game show, which aired on the entertainment giant's ABC network for three years, beginning in the summer of 1999. Celador argued that a series of "sweetheart deals" struck among a clutch of Disney-owned companies kept the show in the red, even as it became ABC's first No. 1 show in more than a decade.

Celador had asked the jury to award damages of up to $395 million, based on experts' estimates of the profit "Millionaire" would have generated had the network paid a fair-market price. The jury awarded slightly less -- $260 million in network fees and $9.2 million in money owed from the sale of related merchandise.

Phillips later tacked on $50 million in prejudgment interest to be paid to Celador.

Disney attempted to overturn the verdict, or at minimum to have the judge order a new trial. It argued that the judge made errors in admitting or excluding evidence -- including one e-mail message from former Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner estimating the value of "Millionaire" to its ABC network was "$1 billion, wild guess, maybe more."

The entertainment company also attacked the amount of the jury award, and the experts Celador used to support its damages claim.

Roman M. Silberfeld, the Los Angeles attorney representing Celador, applauded Phillips' ruling.

"I assure you, Disney made every attack imaginable over the course of six years," Silberfeld said. "They've had, by all measures, a fair opportunity to have their case heard, to make their arguments. Their arguments were rejected and this is a completely proper verdict."

Disney pledged to continue litigating the dispute.

"We continue to believe the verdict is fundamentally wrong," a Disney spokesman said. "And will aggressively seek to have it reversed on appeal."

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski

Photo:  "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" host Regis Philbin. Credit: ABC/ Steve Fenn