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Disney's Wild World of Lawyers: The Scrappiest Place on Earth?

Courts: When entertainment giant is challenged in court, Mickey's ruthless side often comes out, critics say. Company defends right to protect interests.

November 03, 1996|MARK FRITZ | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ORLANDO, Fla. — Elena and Jaime Boruchovas are residents of Uruguay by way of Lithuania. When it came time to mark a major mileston--their 30th wedding anniversary--they did what Americans are encouraged to do:

They went to Disney World.

On a spring evening in 1993, after a day of enjoying the sights and souvenirs of a truly famous place, the couple stood on the street and watched a parade in the Magic Kingdom.

They watched a float roll down the road carrying Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, their costumes glittering with electric lights. They watched the parading platform hit a curb and careen out of control.

They watched a living, breathing Disney character topple toward them.

"One of the dwarfs, I think it was Dopey," said the couple's lawyer, Spencer Aronfeld of Miami. "It was enshrouded in lights and the lights exploded."

This unlikely encounter would send the Boruchovas on a strange journey into the other Disney World, the one that can be as hard and cold as the steel and concrete beneath the fanciful facades of the Magic Kingdom.

Oct. 1 is the 25th anniversary of the famous theme park, an occasion that is not only a celebration of a cultural icon, but the cornerstone of a marketing campaign.

But blow away the pixie dust, and the company that conjures the fantasy is far from typical. Disney World is, in fact, a government entity, a 30,000-acre municipality that can tax and spend and patrol and develop like other communities, but which has been granted key exemptions from oversight that make it far less accountable.

It also has a reputation for toughness, aggressiveness and litigiousness that is unrivaled in the entertainment industry. And some of its critics say it sometimes goes too far to protect its interests, shunning compromise in favor of confrontation.

Disney insists it runs its business and defends its interests in a legal and ethical manner. The company wouldn't comment on some specific legal cases that are likely to supply ammunition to its critics.

Consider the couple from Uruguay. The exploding dwarf seriously injured Elena Boruchovas' left leg. On the third day of her hospitalization, Aronfeld said, a Spanish-speaking Disney representative visited the woman and persuaded her to sign a paper in English, a language the couple didn't understand, in exchange for $1,222.

The woman said she thought it was a receipt for the money.

"The guy who had her sign the release had bought her a little Minnie Mouse doll," Aronfeld said.

The paper released Disney from liability, he said. Boruchovas' leg became infected. She had to have skin grafts. In 1994, the couple sued.

Aronfeld tried to get office space from other Orlando lawyers, a common practice in the profession, but said they all refused. He said Disney's lawyers "out-of-towned" him, scheduling hearings first thing in the morning so he would have to fly in the night before, cranking up his costs.

The pretrial jockeying was intense.

"They're relentless," Aronfeld said. "They hid witnesses. I got contacted by Minnie Mouse, who said she was a witness. They sent her a letter: Do not contact Spencer Aronfeld. The first thing she did was pick up a phone and call me."

In May 1995, the jurors awarded the couple $100,000.

Disney World spokesman Bill Warren wouldn't comment on Aronfeld's claims. He said there was a post-verdict settlement and confidentiality agreement.

He also wouldn't comment on any specific legal case against Disney, but defended the company's efforts to protect itself from legal action.

"We run our business ethically and legally, and that certainly includes our risk-management operation, which we feel is one of the best," he said.

Because Disney World controls so much of its corporate and municipal universe, it can't help but act in a heavy-handed manner to ferociously protect its self-interest, contends Richard Foglesong, a professor of politics at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and a veteran Disney watcher who is writing a book about the company.

"They have immunity from state and local land-use law," he said. "They can build a nuclear plant, distribute alcohol.

"They have powers that local communities don't have. Do they abuse it? In my opinion, yes."

Dating back to the railroad barons of frontier times, Florida has a history of giving tremendous leeway to big revenue producers. But there is evidence of some nervousness with Disney's relative autonomy.

State Attorney General Bob Butterworth is seeking permission to file a friend-of-the-court brief in a state appellate court case brought against Disney by Robert and Kathlyn Sipkema of Windemere.

The couple wants to use Disney police records as evidence in a wrongful death lawsuit against the company. Their son, Robb, was a passenger in a truck that led a Disney patrol car on a high-speed chase in 1994. The truck hit a tree and the Sipkema teen was killed.

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