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L.A. Couple Can Sue Bochco

Courts: A federal appeals panel restores a lawsuit that accuses the TV producer of copying an idea for 'City of Angels.'

June 13, 2002|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an embarrassment for A-list TV producer Steven Bochco, a federal appeals court Wednesday ruled that his defunct CBS hospital drama, "City of Angels," bore a "striking" resemblance to a series idea allegedly pitched to him a decade ago by a Los Angeles couple.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling reinstates a lawsuit filed by businessman Jerome C. Metcalf and his wife, Laurie, in March 2000, alleging Bochco infringed on their idea. That lawsuit was tossed out last year by a federal judge.

Wednesday's ruling does not mean that Bochco was found to have copied their idea, only that the Metcalfs have a right to sue him over it. In addition to reinstating the lawsuit, the ruling also reverses the judge's order that the Metcalfs pay Bochco more than $83,000 in lawyer fees.

In his ruling, Judge Robert J. Kelleher wrote that the case should be reinstated because of "the presence of so many generic similarities" and said that "the similarities between the relevant works are striking." The court also said that Bochco conceded he had access to the Metcalfs' proposals, and that an actor in the show read three versions of the scripts, submitted them to Bochco and that Bochco liked them.

"The numerous similarities between their work and what ultimately became 'City of Angels' showed them their work had been infringed," said Robert F. Helfing, who represented the couple.

But Bochco's lawyer, Edward A. Ruttenberg, said the ruling is legally faulty and full of errors. He said that Bochco never conceded that he saw the Metcalfs' proposal, adding that the producer formed the idea long before they did.

Ruttenberg added that the concept of a TV show set in an urban hospital is a generic idea that can't be copyrighted, citing such examples as "St. Elsewhere" and "ER."

Ruttenberg said he will probably ask that the decision be reheard, or that a larger, 11-member panel of judges hear the case. "If we have to go to trial, we'll go to trial and we'll win," he said.

Bochco is one of television's elite, powerful executives who create, write and produce top shows for networks. His credits include "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue" and "L.A. Law."

In their lawsuit, the Metcalfs alleged that the series about an urban hospital featuring a largely African American cast was based on pitches they made to Bochco in the early 1990s through actor Michael L. Warren, who ultimately starred in the show.

"City of Angels" starred such actors as Blair Underwood, Warren and Vivica A. Fox when it debuted in 2000. Despite such honors as NAACP Image Awards, it was canceled later that year amid poor ratings.

Metcalf has alleged he first got the idea for the show after reading two newspaper articles in November 1989 about the military training doctors at urban hospitals and pitched the idea to Warren, a social acquaintance who was one of the stars of "Hill Street Blues."

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