You may be wondering what is going on with the lawsuit recently filed in California state court by actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting arising from their depiction nearly 45 years ago in Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 motion picture version of Romeo & Juliet.
1. What is the claim about?
Hussey and Whiting were the leads in Zeffirelli's film about the star-crossed lovers in Shakespeare's famous tragedy. Whiting was 16 at the time of filming and Hussey was 15. Both claim that they were told that there would be no nudity filmed or exhibited but ended up being shown nude. They say they were pressured into the nudity by Zeffirelli who said that otherwise the picture would fail. Hussey and Whiting claim that the actions of Paramount Pictures Corporation, which produced and distributed the film, violated various statues protecting against indecency and exploitation of minors.
2. Why is the claim being brought now?
In 2019, in response to the spate of claims by victims of sexual assaults that may have occurred a number of years earlier, California enacted the Child Victims Act, which established a three-year window in which a victim of childhood assault or abuse could bring a claim irrespective of when the abuse took place. But that window ended on December 31, 2022. Hussey and Whiting filed their claim on December 30, 2022 the last business day before the end of the period
3. Are Hussey and Whiting saying they were abused or assaulted?
They bring a variety of claims, all arising from the same underlying conduct where they say that Paramount coerced or deceived them into appearing nude. The specific causes of action include claims for sexual harassment; childhood sexual abuse; fraud, appropriation of name and likeness; intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and unfair business practices. There are no allegations of physical assault or physical abuse.
4. Are those the type of claim covered by the extension of the statute of limitations?
I am not a California lawyer, so will leave it to others to opine on the statute's applicability. But I will say that on first blush the actions taken by Paramount and Zeffirelli, even if true, do not appear to constitute the type of sexual abuse or assault contemplated by the 2020 legislation.
5. It's been nearly 45 year since the film was released. Why didn't Hussey and Whiting complain about their depictions earlier.
That's hard to answer, and there certainly have been instances where victims of sexual assault/abuse have been reluctant to come forward. I will note, however, that press reports indicate that at least Hussey previously described her appearance in the film which involved only a few seconds of partial nudity, as being "tasteful" and "needed for the film."
6. What are the plaintiffs looking for?
According to the complaint, they are looking for in excess of $100 million on each of their causes of action,
7. How does this case compare to the so-called Nirvana baby case?
In a decision issued in September, 2022, a California federal court dismissed a claim by a man named Spencer Elden, who was photographed and depicted naked as a 5 month old baby on the cover of Nirvana's 1991 "Nevermind" album. The claim was brought under a provision of federal law relating to materials containing child pornography. The Court dismissed the claim on statute of limitations grounds. The relevant provision of federal law permitted claims to be brought within ten years of their discovery. The Court rejected the plaintiff's claim that each new action by the defendants triggered a new statute of limitations. Elden has appealed.
8. So is the Nirvana case dispositive of the Hussey/Whiting case?
Not necessarily. The Hussey/Whiting case involves claims under California state law and a specific limitations provision not at issue in the Nirvana case
9. What is going to happen next?
See the title of this post. I said I would tell you 8 things you might want to know . . . .