‘Rebecca’ Jury Delivers Mixed Verdict On Press Agent, Finding “Interference” But No Defamation In Doomed $12M Show
UPDATED 9:15 PM with more information throughout: After struggling for two days with complex definitions of “defamation” and “tortious interference” and a week of conflicting testimony about a Broadway investor who turned out not to be dead, as initially reported, but non-existent, a Manhattan jury Wednesday afternoon said that press agent Marc Thibodeau interfered with an investor’s commitment to Rebecca The Musical and was liable for compensatory damages in the breach of his contract.
But the jury in New York State Supreme Court sent a decidedly mixed message.The jury of five women and one man awarded producers Ben Sprecher and Louise Forlenza just $5,000 for breach of his contract as press agent, an amount equal to his total compensation for more than four years of work on the $12 million show. They awarded the producers an additional $85,000 for interference with a prospective investor, who pulled out of the show. On the more serious charge of defamation, however, which could have resulted in far more significant damages, the jury ruled in Thibodeau’s favor.
The plaintiffs had sought more than $10 million in damages, asserting that a series of cautionary emails Thibodeau sent, using two different pseudonyms, to the potential investor, did not have “the sole purpose” of maligning the producers, as required, according to New York State Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Oing’s detailed charge to the jury. Oing ruled last year that Thibodeau was liable for damages on the breach of contract but left it to a jury to determine the monetary extent of harm, if any.
The producers claimed Thibodeau’s emails to Florida pharmaceuticals executive Larry Runsdorf had “demolished” their “lifelong dream” of making their Broadway debuts as lead producers with the musical adaptation of the popular 1938 Daphne du Maurier novel and 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film. Sprecher and Forlenza already had suffered setbacks and postponements when Mark Hotton, a facilitator they hired to raise capital for the show, turned out to be a con artist adept at providing promises of investments from people who turned out to be non-existent. Hotton is in prison for fraud relating to a number of cases.
In 2012, claiming to be nearing their investment goal, Sprecher and Forlenza secured a $2.25 million commitment from Runsdorf as “last money” in the show – meaning that it would only be available when the capitalization was complete. He also wanted to remain anonymous.
Thibodeau testified that he had first discovered the problems with Hotton and the phantom investors after doing a basic Internet search, but that the producers didn’t immediately follow up on the information. At the time, reports in The New York Times and other news outlets revealed that one of Hotton’s key investors, who he claimed had died of malaria while on an African safari, in fact never existed. Thibodeau testified that the producers were pursuing the phantom investments and not telling the real investors, even after learning the truth. The press agent’s team also presented evidence that Sprecher and Forlenza overstated the advance ticket sales for Rebecca and compared its prospects to blockbusters such as The Phantom of the Opera, even when it was clear that was not going to happen.
Runsdorf did not testify at the trial. The case went to the jury after closing arguments and Oing’s charge on Monday and Tuesday. During deliberations, the jury sent a series of requests for testimony regarding the timeline of events and the definition of defamation. Noting the number of requests, Oing observed, with the jury not present, that “they’re a great jury, they’re doing a great job.” During an often contentious trial, Oing consistently showed an even hand and a sense of humor in dealing with objections, while also making it clear he would not tolerate side-tracking by the lawyers. Several times he acknowledged one side or the others’ confusion regarding his directives and adjusted them for clarity.
The outcome was clearly not what the producers were anticipating.
“We won, but we don’t really understand the damage award,” Sprecher told Deadline in an email. One of the more newsworthy revelations from the trial was that Sprecher and Forlenza no longer have the rights to the show.
Ronald G. Russo, one of Sprecher and Forlenza’s lawyers, emailed the following statement:
“Earlier today, a Manhattan jury awarded monetary damages against Marc Thibodeau on two of three causes of action that the producers of Rebecca, the Musical brought against him following the delay of the play. The producers are gratified that the jury found Thibodeau liable for damages both for having breached his employment contract to act as the publicist for Rebecca, as well as for having tortuously[sic] interfered with the producers’ business relationship with Mr. Lawrence Runsdorf, who had invested in the play. Although the producers were disappointed by the ‘damage award,’ a 6-member Jury made clear today that Mr. Thibodeau was not a ‘whistleblower,’ as he has contended, and found that his having sent four emails under false names was wrongful and assessed monetary damages against him for doing so.”
For his part, Thibodeau told Deadline, via email, “I am incredibly relieved about what happened today. When you have been sued for $10.9 million [for] breach of contract and the jury rewards plaintiff with $5,000, that’s a victory. And NO defamation is a victory, and what mattered most to me.”
No decision yet as to whether the plaintiffs will appeal.
Thibodeau was represented by Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP, New York; Sprecher and Florenza were repped by Schlam Stone & Dolan LLP, New York (Erik S. Groothuis and Jonathan Mazer of counsel).