Woman claims 'Death at a Funeral' ripped from her own funeral mishaps

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Woman claims 'Death at a Funeral' ripped from her own funeral mishaps

Tue Jul 06, 2010 @ 12:53PM PST
By Eriq Gardner

41965_fx-movies-death-at-a-funeralSome lawsuits are just better than others. Here's a one-of-a-kind gem.

A woman is demanding $20 million in damages from Sony Pictures, Chris Rock and other producers of the April comedy "Death at a Funeral," claiming they ripped off her 1995 book about the embarrassment she suffered at a funeral in Jamaica when she was stripped of her clothing.

The woman, Pamella Lawrence, is representing herself in court and has filed a lawsuit stuffed with outrageous claims, including racism, a plot to eradicate the female population of urban cities and allegations of inside jokes within the movie that were specifically intended to humiliate her. 

Yes, many of the claims stretch reason, but Lawrence has also gone to extreme lengths to craft a 54-page complaint that almost looks and feels as if it was drawn up by a $500-an-hour attorney. She cites applicable laws and case citations (although none are required in complaints), copyright registrations, numerous exhibits and perhaps most impressively a frame work intended to bypass the legal pitfalls that typically trip up those asserting idea theft in Hollywood.

Death-at-a-funeral-big Two versions of "Death at a Funeral" have come out in the past three years. The first was a British comedy directed by Frank Oz and released as a modest hit in 2007. The second, a U.S. film directed by Neil LaBute and starring Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan and Martin Lawrence, came out earlier this year to lukewarm reviews and so-so boxoffice. The plots of both movies center on a planned funeral service gone horribly wrong.

Pamela Lawrence (no relation to Martin, we're assuming) claims these two films infringed her copyright on the book "Caught on Video ... The Most Embarassing Moment de Funeral, July 11, 1994, Jamaican Volume 1."

She lists similarities in incidents, characters and settings between the works. For example, Martin Lawrence plays a writer who is traveling from L.A. to New York and complains that if he doesn't get money, he'll have to do a reality show. In her book, Pamela Lawrence is a writer from New York traveling to Los Angeles with problems worthy of a talk show. 

The similarities are somewhat thin, but the plaintiff says her work (including a videotape of her real life experience) was strong enough that agents at William Morris signed her as a client. 

In 1998, Lawrence says she was contacted by the co-vice chairman of Columbia TriStar to attend a "pitch meeting." At the meeting, executives at the studio were left a copy of the book, videotape and other research materials. Later, she was allegedly told by them to "get lost, if you can afford to prove our action see you in court, we employee (sic) the best attorneys."

According to the complaint, Lawrence responded by filing a lawsuit against them about a decade ago. 

In 2001, that case was allegedly settled on undisclosed terms, a fact which Lawrence claims made its way into the 2010 film as a joke about Col. Harland Sanders stealing the recipe for KFC fried chicken from a slave and then settling a claim.

In short, Lawrence goes beyond mere copyright infringement to assert breach of implied contract, unfair competition, interference with prospective economic advantage, tortious breach of confidence, deceit and fraud. Proving unauthorized copying of expression is a pretty high bar for plaintiffs but Lawrence at least alleges a semi-coherent story of unfair business practices.

Coherent, that is, if a judge can see beyond the rampant paranoia on display in the lawsuit. Lawrence claims the defendants intended to destroy the "female competition" from the "inner city" in relevant markets by distributing the film, that Hollywood has a consistent pattern of discriminating against women as evidenced by the fact it took 82 years for a woman to win best director at the Oscars, and that this case is an example of why there are so few minorities at Sony Pictures (really?).

Lawrence is demanding $20 million in damages, 66% of gross profits and an injunction. Among the many defendants are Sony, Columbia Pictures, Tristar, Target Media, Screen Gems, Lawrence Malkin, Frank Oz, Chris Rock, Neil LaBute. 

Sony tells us it has no comment.

Here's the complaint.

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The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to Matthew.Belloni@thr.com

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