The judge overseeing the 12-year-old feud over Winnie the Pooh royalties has removed himself from the case, becoming the latest major participant to bow out of the bitter dispute between Walt Disney Co. and the family who inherited the merchandising rights for the cuddly bear.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige recently requested that the unwieldy case -- with tens of thousands of pages of motions, including allegations of unsavory conduct -- be moved to the county’s Complex Litigation Program. The unit was established three years ago to help unclog the regular courts of time-consuming cases.
Hiroshige’s request was granted last week, a court clerk confirmed Wednesday, and a new judge has been assigned to the case.
It wasn’t clear why Hiroshige sought the change, and what implications his departure would have for the case.
However, Daniel Petrocelli, the lead attorney representing Disney, said Wednesday that the move should not further delay what is already one of the longest-running cases in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
“It will neither delay nor speed up the progress of the case,” Petrocelli said.
Attorneys Elwood Lui and Rick McNight, who represent the mother and daughter who hold the Pooh merchandising rights, were not available for comment Wednesday.
The Slesinger family inherited the rights to the Pooh characters from Stephen Slesinger, a New York literary agent who helped pioneer the business of marketing cartoon characters. He obtained the merchandising rights in 1930 from Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne.
Disney acquired the rights from Slesinger’s widow, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, and her daughter, Patricia Slesinger, in 1961. Over the years, Disney has paid the family more than $66 million in royalties.
In 1991, the Slesingers sued Disney, claiming the company cheated them out of millions of dollars in royalties for products including computer software, videocassettes and DVDs.
Disney contends it has paid the family all that they are owed. Petrocelli said he would ask to have the case dismissed. The Burbank-based company has said in government filings that losing the case could cost it hundreds of millions of dollars.
In July, prominent Los Angeles attorney Bertram Fields requested that he be allowed off the case for undisclosed reasons. Fields was instrumental in raising the profile of the case.
Neither side opposed Hiroshige’s request to transfer the case. Hiroshige did not specify in court papers why he wanted off the case and could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He was the second judge assigned to the lawsuit and has handled it for about a decade.
A court hearing had been scheduled for Wednesday to discuss the plan to move the case. That hearing was canceled after Judge Charles W. McCoy Jr., one of six judges in the unit specializing in complex litigation, agreed last week to take the case.
McCoy scheduled a hearing for Oct. 22.