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Cable Guy Not Liable For Punitive Damages

You're hard at work writing screenplays (yes, we're in LA) on your computer, and the doorbell rings.  Finally.  It's the cable guy, and he's here to hook up your DSL service.  You're looking forward to ditching that almost-as-slow-as-snail-mail dial-up modem in favor of blazing-fast downloads.  At least that's what the cable company told you over the phone.

If you've ever had the cable guy hook up DSL, then you know that he's got to access your computer in order to complete the set-up.  Kind of like the old house calls that doctors no longer make.  You know, look under the hood, prod in a few places and tell you to take two aspirin and call me in the morning.  Everything will be fine.

Well, for Nicholas Boyd, not everything was fine when the cable guy left.  Sure he had his new, blazing-fast DSL, but he was short three screenplays.  The cable guy reasoned that certain icons and other items on Boyd's computer weren't necessary, and deleted them.  Like any other red-blooded screenwriter, Boyd sued his DSL provider, SBC Advanced Solutions, Inc., now AT&T.  Boyd claimed he had a $2.7 million deal for the three screenplays, even though he had never previously sold one.  He did, however, have a producer testify that such a deal was in the works, but was far from a written contract, or even a famous Hollywood Handshake.

Instead of believing Boyd and the producer, the jury awarded Boyd $27,000 for the loss of the screenplays, and another $33,000 in punitive damages, figuring that Boyd was partly to blame, both for not backing up the screenplays and then using the computer after the files were deleted, saving over the sectors on the hard disk where the screenplay files had been saved.  The forensic computer consultant hired by SBC recovered only part of one screenplay.

The Second District Court of Appeals, in an unpublished decision (payment required to view), reversed the punitive damages award against SBC because the jury failed to make a finding that the cable guy intentionally erased the screenplays.  Without intent, punitive damages are inappropriate, the Court ruled.

Boyd recovers $27,000, less SBC's costs on appeal, for his screenplays.  He'll likely end up owing SBC for the experience.  The cable guy got fired.

Posted by J. Craig Williams on Wednesday, July 19, 2006

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