Citing "prejudicially ambiguous" options given to a jury, a unanimous appeals court panel overturned an $8.1-million verdict against actress Kim Basinger on Thursday for reneging on an agreement to appear in the film "Boxing Helena."
The judgment had forced Basinger into bankruptcy and threatened to undermine the Hollywood tradition of making deals on a handshake.
Lawyers for both sides said the reversal was based on a technicality--Superior Court Judge Judith Chirlin failed to separate Basinger from her personal services company, Mighty Wind Inc.
Chirlin was reversed "on a technicality she created," said attorney Howard Weitzman, who represented Basinger during her trial.
Main Line Pictures, the small, independent company that produced "Boxing Helena," had argued that Basinger and Mighty Wind are one and the same, but Basinger's attorneys maintained that if there was an agreement, it was between Main Line and Mighty Wind.
"I am extremely pleased with the court's decision," Basinger said in a prepared statement. "I continue to maintain that there was no contract, oral or otherwise, contrary to (Main Line's) assertions that I simply viewed an oral agreement as non-binding."
Attorney Patricia Glaser, who represents Main Line, was undaunted by the appellate court decision and said the film company will seek a new trial.
"We'll whomp their rear-ends again," Glaser said.
"I feel vindicated because the court didn't touch the merits of this case," she said. "In fact, the court even stated during oral arguments that the record was replete with evidence of a contract."
The three-judge appeals court panel ruled that verdict forms prepared by Judge Chirlin allowed the jury to find that "Basinger and/or Mighty Wind" had entered a contract with Main Line and breached it.
"The 'and/or' (verdict forms) are prejudicially ambiguous and require reversal," 2nd District Court of Appeal Justice Margaret Grignon wrote. Those verdict forms "prevented the jury from performing its obligation to determine the separate existence of Mighty Wind and Basinger," the opinion said. Justice Ramona Godoy Perez and Presiding Justice Paul Turner concurred.
Basinger's appellate lawyer Irving Greines called "and/or" verdict forms "hopelessly incomprehensible," saying they have been condemned in California for more than 50 years.
Chirlin "failed to follow the law and created something new with this 'and/or' clause to draw Kim into the contract," Weitzman said. "That confused the jury as to which party was actually responsible for the contract."
Greines said he feels "extremely confident that Kim would win this case on retrial. The case is fabricated out of thin air."
When the verdict against Basinger, 40, was handed down in March, 1993, it sparked a mixed reaction in Hollywood, where movie deals are often based on handshake agreements. Some are even signed on cocktail napkins or given the nod in casual conversations. Never before had any studio or independent producer pursued a star for reneging on an agreement with such determination.
The key dispute was over discussions involving Basinger, Main Line head Carl Mazzocone and "Boxing Helena" director Jennifer Lynch. Basinger was to play the role of a woman rescued from a car accident by a lovesick doctor who becomes obsessed with her and amputates her arms and legs before holding her hostage in a box. The movie, eventually made with Sherilyn Fenn in the lead role, bombed at the box office.
There were various drafts of a deal memo drawn up by the actress's lawyer that Main Line contended stood as a binding contract.
Basinger, following the advice of her agent Guy McElwaine, backed away from the role, particularly when it required her to pose nude.
Since her trial, there have been several instances in Hollywood where stars such as Michael Douglas, actor/director Robert Redford and actress/director Jodie Foster have bailed out of roles at the last minute--sometimes days before shooting begins. All contend they had script approval before committing to their role--a so-called "out" clause Basinger always maintained she retained.
But none of the studios or producers, whose films relied on those actors, have taken any action to force them to star in their pictures. Redford and Foster were both expected to star in 20th Century Fox's "Crisis in the Hot Zone," and Douglas would have played a leading role in Carolco Pictures' pirate movie "Cutthroat Island."
Basinger's bankruptcy is still unresolved.
Earlier Thursday, a tiny Georgia bank owned by Basinger brought $1,541,000 at a bankruptcy sale.