All About Estates

To Boldly Go Where No Estate Litigation Has Gone Before

Even if you have never seen an episode of Star Trek you are probably familiar with “Beam me up, Scotty”[1] or Mr. Spock’s ears. The judges of our Superior Court frequently mine the show for metaphors.[2] Gene Roddenberry is widely known as the mind behind Star Trek but less well known is his ugly estate litigation fight that centered around the definition of “Star Trek.”

Mr. Roddenberry and his first wife Eileen Roddenberry divorced in 1969. As part of their divorce settlement, Mrs. Roddenberry received a “one-half interest in all future profit participation income from `Star Trek’ to which [Mrs. Roddenberry] and/or [Gene Roddenberry] are entitled.” However, the agreement did not define “Star Trek.” Mr. Roddenberry then married his second wife (and Star Trek actor), Majel Barrett.

In the 1980s Mrs. Roddenberry commenced a proceeding against Mr. Roddenberry and his corporation – stating that she had not been provided with her proper share of the profits of the original Star Trek television show (despite the language of the agreement, Mr. Roddenberry had been sending one-third, rather than one-half, of the profits). She also, however, claimed that she should receive a profit from the other Star Trek properties that had been spawned by the original.

At the time of the divorce there was only one “Star Trek” – the original television show. By the time the litigation was commenced the original Star Trek had multiple iterations: one animated television series, two live action TV shows and six movies (to say nothing of numerous books and merchandise). There have since been three additional live action TV shows and seven more movies – and even more are coming.

Mrs. Roddenberry claimed that the term “Star Trek” in the settlement was intended to refer to all future exploitations of the Star Trek concept. Mr. Roddenberry countered that “Star Trek” meant only the original TV show “Star Trek”: at the time no one thought that a failed television series would ever have any form of spin-off. In the course of the litigation, Mr. Roddenberry passed away and the litigation was carried on by his estate trustee, Ms. Barrett (i.e. his second wife).

The trial court held that Mrs. Roddenberry was not entitled to receive profit sharing from Star Trek-related animations, movies, or merchandising but was entitled to receive profit sharing from the original Star Trek series and any “successors, sequels and spin-offs” – as these were “continuations” of the original Star Trek. The trial court also ordered punitive damages against Mr. Roddenberry’s corporation for giving Ms. Roddenberry only one third of the profits of the original Star Trek (under California law punitive damages could not be awarded against an estate).

Ms. Barrett appealed to the Court of Appeals of California. The majority upheld the punitive damage award but reversed Mrs. Roddenberry’s entitlement to a share of profits for other Star Treks.

The majority found that depending on what characters, technology and themes were analyzed there were arguments both way on whether or not the new Star Trek shows were “continuations” of the original Star Trek. However, the appellate court noted that this was a demonstration of the old adage: “Ask the wrong question, and you will get the wrong answer.” Rather than engage in literary criticism to see how similar the various Star Trek shows were – the court should apply a standard contractual analysis – what did the parties intend when they entered into the agreement? [3]

The court noted that the evidence was uncontradicted that Star Trek’s postdivorce resurgence was unprecedented in entertainment industry history. Never before, the court continued, had a financially failed television series enjoyed such subsequent popularity, attracted subsequent investment, and inspired subsequent ventures. It was clearly not in the contemplation of the parties when they signed the agreement that there would be additional Star Trek properties that Mrs. Roddenberry should get a share in. By engaging in a continuation, rather than contractual, analysis the trial court had “embarked on a mission to explore a strange new world.”

The majority, however, upheld the punitive damage award against Mr. Roddenberry’s company. The majority had no sympathy for the argument that the prohibition on punitive damages against an estate should be extended to the estate’s corporation. Ultimately, the corporation was a separate legal entity and punitive damages could be awarded against it.

Live long and prosper, and happy litigating!

[1] Similarly to “Elementary, my dear Watson” this line was never actually uttered.

[2] Justice Charney stated that the litigation before him (aptly enough in the Khan case) reminded him of the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” in which the last two survivors of a war-torn planet pursue each other across the universe, each committed to destroying the other long after their planet has become extinct. Justice Myers, also faced with intractable litigants, noted that “their battles appear to be destined to continue as unrelenting as the 500 year war between Eminiar VII and Vendikar” (from the episode “A Taste of Armageddon”).

[3] It is perhaps a good thing that the appellate court was not engaging in such textual criticism as they got many of the underlying facts regarding the Star Trek successor shows wrong. Star Trek: The Next Generation was described as being set “on the same Starship Enterprise, but 78 years later.” In actuality, the Next Generation’s USS Enterprise was a far larger Galaxy-Class vessel (rather than the original series’ Constitution-Class). Additionally, the show was set almost a hundred years after the original series – not 78 years. The description of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine being set “on a new and more advanced starship” is also incorrect; that show was set on a decrepit alien space station.

About Jacob Kaufman
Jacob Kaufman is a lawyer with de VRIES LITIGATION LLP. Jacob assists clients with will challenges, dependant support claims, guardianship applications, power of attorney disputes and other estate and trust litigation matters. He has appeared before various levels of court, including the Superior Court of Justice and the Court of Appeal for Ontario. Jacob obtained his law degree from the University of Western Ontario (with distinction) after completing an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from Queen’s University in history (with distinction). He has written articles for the International Law Office, Legal Alert and the OBA’s Deadbeat. Email: jkaufman@devrieslitigation.com

4 Comments

  1. Meejum

    August 7, 2019 - 11:12 pm
    Reply

    Great blog. Live long and prosper, yourself!

  2. Corey Wall

    August 14, 2019 - 7:11 pm
    Reply

    “ghu’vam qamuSHa'”

    I really enjoyed this and I also like the use of cultural touchstones in judicial decisions.

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