The lawyers sat before the black-robed judge with righteous solemnity. The plaintiff, a darkly handsome 31-year-old, fidgeted with his coffee cup, his evidence packed up in a cardboard box nearby.
The man's lawsuit contended that his talent had been exploited. But this was no garden variety breach-of-contract case.
Put in the language of polite society, Peyton vs. Health Devices Inc. et al concerned the so-called piracy of body parts of the plaintiff, Charles Peyton. Using the name Jeff Stryker, Peyton has become a superstar of the porn industry, starring in such films as "Powerful II," "Stryker Force" and "Heartless."
Peyton claimed that replicas of the body part for which he is best known--devices euphemistically described in court recently as "rubber goods," "marital novelties" or just plain "units"--had been sold without authorization and without payment. One product was manufactured from a plaster cast for which Peyton had posed for a sculptor.
Even for Los Angeles courtrooms in the summer of 1993--where Heidi Fleiss was arraigned on charges of pandering and procuring, where funk singer Rick James was convicted on assault charges, and where eight people are being tried for alleged lewd and lascivious sexual acts in a Hollywood nightclub--even here, there are limits.
The content of Peyton vs. Health "is beneath the dignity of the court," said Superior Court Judge Eric A. Younger. "Almost anybody outside the industry would define (this) as perversion for commercial purposes."
Peyton's lawyer, Sanford Passman, protested that the products and activities involved are legal in the state of California.
"Is this really what you went to law school for?" the judge asked.
Younger told the attorneys that he had ordered an assistant to look for a legal way to "toss you guys out of here on your fanny." But when the researcher failed to turn anything up, the judge met the challenge of the case with Solomon-like dignity.
"I regard myself as a professional," the reluctant judge told the litigants. "You'll get the same attention as the Little Sisters of Charity."
Quirky cases are nothing new to Los Angeles courts.
Judge Diane Wayne recalled a lawsuit for assault and battery, brought by a woman seeking damages from a man she claimed had slapped her with a fish.
In the same category of alleged assault with a coldblooded animal, there's a current case in which a model is suing the television producers of "Totally Hidden Video," saying she was pelted by snakes and lizards when she showed up for a supposedly routine modeling session.
Recently, an international dispute over ostrich eggs landed in Wayne's courtroom. "I didn't realize how valuable ostrich eggs were," Wayne said. "A receiver had been appointed in Israel to protect these ostrich eggs, which had somehow ended up in San Pedro. He came in to get a temporary restraining order to stop anybody from removing them and to inspect them. He did inspect the eggs, but they had all hatched, or been crushed, or died."
Earlier this year, a law student appeared before Judge Judith Chirlin, pursuing a claim against an ex-girlfriend. "He had given her a UCLA Law School sweat shirt as a token of his affection," Chirlin said. "The relationship breaks up, he wants it returned and she refuses. . . . It was a grudge match." The case was dismissed.
Cynthia Plaster Caster's suit over the ownership of "anatomically precise" statues she had made depicting rock stars' private parts was recently tried before Judge Lillian Stevens. Plaster Caster apparently had crafted her creations with the cooperation of Jimi Hendrix and other '60s rock legends. She had given the statuettes to a man for safekeeping, but sued when he refused to return them. Plaster Caster won the case.
"They were little pedestals. You could set them on a coffee table," Stevens said. "The funny thing about it was the lawyers asked me not to exhibit the plaster casts in court, because they said it would harm their commercial value, that it was a trade secret. I said, 'Not since the Garden of Eden, I don't think.' "
The litigants tried and failed to reverse her decision to allow the exhibits to be shown in court. "I said: 'You brought this lawsuit to the court, which is a public entity,' " Stevens recalled. "They said: 'We think you should study them in chambers,' and I said: 'Why would I want to do that?' "
Peyton's case was one of 84,000 filed in Los Angeles Superior Court last year, a load that causes a two-year lag before the average case reaches trial. If the statistics leave some observers inclined to ask whether such cases are in the best interests of an overburdened justice system, legal scholars are wary of making any generalizations.
"Is it a waste of time? I don't know," said Craig Christenson, professor of law at Southwestern University College of Law. "There are a lot of disputes that get into court that waste the system's time."
In this case, there is a legitimate legal issue involved: whether or not the companies had breached their contract with Peyton to market his novelties.
"If the facts were different, nobody would quarrel about it being in court," Christenson said. "If a star allowed somebody to take a plaster cast of her face to sell likenesses, nobody would quarrel with that."
Peyton's suit sought compensation, perhaps more than $1 million in unpaid royalties, according to his lawyer, Passman. But attorneys for defendants California Publishers Liquidating Corp. and Health Devices claimed that the Peyton products the companies marketed were a financial bust. The actor had been paid $200,000 for his services, they said, and deserved nothing more.
As the trial proceeded, Peyton testified how he had signed a contract allowing his likeness to be reproduced. He even described a "bidding war" over his services.
When Passman showed him a series of rubber replicas displayed in a catalogue, Peyton leaned forward to study the pictures. Younger glanced down from the bench. "They look like cordless telephones," the judge quipped.
Younger called the Plaster Caster case "the PG version of this trial." When Passman offered to keep all the Stryker exhibits in their boxes so as not to offend the court's "sensibilities," Younger snapped. "That misses the point.
"I didn't see any exhibits that I haven't seen before," he added.
Ultimately, Younger chose to grant the companies' request to dismiss Peyton's allegations, if they agreed to pay him $25,000. The judge called his ruling "horseback jurisprudence" and noted that Peyton had a right to appeal.
He asked the attorneys to take their exhibits with them when they left his courtroom.