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LPWire: Judge Rejects Disney Appeal on 'Pooh' Document Destruction

Judge Rejects Disney Appeal on 'Pooh' Document Destruction
Tremendously Important Ruling for Upcoming Trial, Says 'Pooh' Lawyer

The California Court of Appeals yesterday rejected Disney's appeal of sanctions for destroying documents in the decade-long legal battle over Winnie-the-Pooh royalties. The ruling means that when the case goes to trial next March, the jury will be instructed to accept as fact versions of events put forth by the family that granted the Pooh rights to Disney.

"This is a tremendously important ruling for the Slesinger family," said lawyer Bert Fields. "The jury will be told that certain conversations which we contend go right to the heart of the case were true. These include specific promises made by Disney executives to pay the family royalties, which Disney is now denying ever took place."

In referring to the sanctions upheld by the court, Justice Norman Epstein wrote "the court found that Disney misused the pretrial discovery process by destroying evidence it knew or should have known was sought by SSI [Stephen Slesinger, Inc.], making false and evasive responses to SSI's discovery, and unduly delaying notification about the records destruction. The court found the records destruction was 'at least due to its [i.e., Disney's] gross negligence.'"

Included in the hundreds of boxes and thousands of documents destroyed was a file marked "Winnie the Pooh Legal Problems." According to Fields, some documents were destroyed as late as 1998, long after the family had requested their production. "That took place as Disney was successfully keeping the case sealed from the media and the public," said Fields. "All the family has been asking is that Disney pay what it owes. We think that the destroyed documents would have strongly supported the family's case."

The plaintiff in the case is Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, the 79-year old widow of licensing pioneer Stephen Slesinger, who teamed up with Pooh author A. A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepherd in the 1930s to expand Pooh beyond the confines of his books.

After her husband died, Mrs. Lasswell extended Pooh product and service uses in the U.S. and Canada. In 1961, she granted Pooh rights to Walt Disney himself, and in return, Milne and Slesinger received a share of gross revenues generated by Pooh product and service uses worldwide.

--Posted November 22, 2002
Source: Soury Communications, Inc.