By Elizabeth Alt | Jul 19, 2018

BATON ROUGE – The Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal recently affirmed a trial court ruling that found Universal City Studios did not violate the privacy of the estate of Barry Seal, a Louisiana native who died in 1986, whose life was used as the basis for the 2017 movie “American Made."

The movie, starring Tom Cruise, is based on Seal's life as an airline pilot who was recruited by the CIA and was a minor participant in the Iran-Contra affair, according to news articles.

Appeals Judge John Michael Guidry wrote the June 21 court opinion, with Judge William Crain concurring and Judge John Pettigrew concurring with separate opinion, affirming the trial court ruling for no cause of action and reversing the denial of special motions to strike. The court order assigned all costs of the appeal to be paid by the plaintiff, Lisa Seal Frigon, Seal's daughter from his first marriage.  

“It has long been recognized that the 1st Amendment protects film and  corollary to this principle is that the 1st Amendment protects the act of making film," the opinion said.

In 2014 Universal City Studios purchased rights to the life story of Adler Berriman Seal, known as Barry Seal, from his surviving spouse and children from his third marriage, Debbie Seal, Aaron Seal, Christina Seal Warmack, and Dean Berriman Seal. The Seal defendants also gave Universal rights to their life stories and “agreed to act as consultants” while Universal developed and produced the film based on Barry Seal’s life.

Frigon was appointed as the administrator of Seal’s estate shortly thereafter, and sued Universal City Studios LLC seeking damages on behalf of her father’s estate for conversion, violation of privacy and publicity rights, misappropriation, false advertising and unfair trade practices. Frigon also sought to nullify the agreement between Universal and the Seal defendants and enjoin any further development of the movie.

In August 2016 the 19th Judicial District Court for East Baton Rouge Parish granted the peremptory exceptions raising the objection of no cause of action and denied special motions to strike filed by Universal and the Seal defendants, assigning each party to bear their court costs.

Frigon filed a motion for a partial new trial, which the trial court denied in February 2017, dismissing Frigon’s petition against all the defendants with prejudice.

Frigon appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in sustaining the peremptory exceptions and not allowing her to amend her petition to state a cause of action. Universal answered the appeal, requesting the August 2016 judgment be modified, revised or reversed, claiming they are entitled to attorney’s fees and costs as the prevailing party.

Guidry stated that although as the administrator Frigon has rights to make claims on her father’s behalf, claims of privacy “have been viewed as personal to the individual and not heritable” and held that the trial court did not error in sustaining the objection of no cause of action for Frigon’s claims of right of publicity and right of privacy.

Guidry was careful replying to Universal’s claim that Frigon’s suit “would have a chilling effect on free speech” by saying, “we make no express ruling regarding Universal' s characterization of Ms. Frigon's suit.” The Court noted that 30 years after his death, Seal’s life story “has remained an issue of public interest years after his death” and emphasized that the issues in the film such as drug trafficking “and the actions of federal authorities … unquestionably can be viewed as matters of public concern and interest, not just in Louisiana, but nationwide.” 

Concurring with a separate opinion, Pettigrew noted that the majority did not address Louisiana statute R.S. 14: 102. 21 and whether it was intended to “protect a particular plaintiff from the type of harm that ensued.” Pettigrew noted after researching the statute, “In my humble opinion, said statute' s scope is limited to the facts of the soldier's military history. The case before us involves the life story of an alleged criminal and drug smuggler who was not killed while serving his country during military duty, but rather was killed while allegedly participating in alleged criminal activity.”

The court order reversed the trial court August 2016 judgment, granting the special motions to strike, and amended the February 2017 judgment to “decree the Seal defendants as prevailing parties on their special motion to strike and thereby entitled to an award of reasonable attorney fees and costs.“ The order assigned all costs of the appeal to Ms. Frigon.

Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal Case Number 2017 CA 0993

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