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Harper Lee’s Estate Sues Aaron Sorkin’s Production of “To Kill a Mockingbird”: When Can Estates Sue and Be Sued?

Famed Hollywood writer, director, and producer Aaron Sorkin is on the defending end of a lawsuit brought by Harper Lee’s estate.  The estate alleges that his adaptation of the Pulitzer prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird” strays too far in the story and the development of some key characters from the original 1960 best selling book. In case you haven’t read it (spoiler alert), “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a favorite among attorneys and the general public alike. At its heart, it is the story of a wrongfully accused African-American man in 1930s Alabama. With prominent local attorney Atticus Finch as his defense counsel, both men struggle with the prejudice and injustice that was all too common both then and now.

 

The book has been adapted in 1962 into a movie starring Gregory Peck. In this instance, Aaron Sorkin sought to adapt the book into a Broadway play. According to the terms of the contract, Harper Lee had the “right to review the script of the Play and to make comments which shall be considered in good faith by the Playwright.” Additionally, “the Play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters.”

 

According to the complaint, which can be read here, the production company, Rudinplay, hired Aaron Sorkin to be the playwright and Harper Lee approved him in 2015. Per the terms of the agreement, the company sent Ms. Lee a check for $100,000. She died approximately three months later in February of 2016 and, under the contract, her Estate became “the author”. In a September 2017 interview with Vulture, Sorkin explained how his version would differ from the original book. He said, “[a]s far as Atticus and his virtue goes, this is a different take on Mockingbird than Harper Lee’s or Horton Foote’s…[h]e becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, and while he’s going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote. He is in denial about his neighbors and his friends and the world around him, that it is as racist as it is, that a Maycomb County jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it’s so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people.”

 

To admit any departure was perhaps a huge mistake, although the deviations were revealed when the personal representative of Harper Lee’s Estate, Tonja Carter, saw a first draft a few weeks later. On behalf of Harper Lee, she expressed concerns about the script, namely the alterations of the characters and the addition of two new characters. Further revisions brought more concerns and despite the production company’s insistence that these were working versions and subject to quite a bit more revision, the estate filed suit in mid-March of 2018.

 

Whether the script “derogate[s] or depart[s]” from the book is now in the hands of the court, but it serves as a good illustration of what estates can do. Estates are legal entities in the eyes of the courts. They are made up of the assets of the deceased and can finish carrying out the deceased person’s financial and legal affairs and transfer property to his or her beneficiaries and heirs. They can also initiate litigation, as we’ve seen in this Harper Lee example. In order to protect the estate of Lee, the estate’s personal representative went to court to enforce the terms of the contract Lee signed before her death.

 

In other circumstances, estates can be sued by other parties. They, or the executors, can be sued by beneficiaries in instances where the beneficiaries believe the estate is not being administered properly. More commonly, creditors can go after estates for debts owed by the deceased party. The laws surrounding estates vary state to state, so it may depend whether the debts owed were incurred by the deceased party or by the executor of the estate and it is important to consult with a local attorney to determine the applicable laws.

 

Sometimes, a person dies in the middle of ongoing litigation. In such a case, the estate steps into that person’s shoes. If the deceased person was involved in an accident and injured another person, that person can go after the deceased’s estate. Finally, as we see in the case of Harper Lee and Aaron Sorkin, the author signed a contract with the production company prior to her death regarding a play which, as fate would have it, she would not live to see. Her estate sued the production company to enforce the contract and her purported wishes. With the legal benefit of having estates step into the shoes of the deceased party they are associated with, states ensure that loose ends can be tied up by the executor or personal representative.

 

If you have a claim against an estate, need to defend against a claim against an estate you are representing, or need some assistance in conducting and concluding an estate’s legal affairs, please give us a call at (704) 457-1010. For more information about our attorneys and practice areas, please visit us at www.lindleylawoffice.com.

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