July 13, 2011
Dances with Ambiguity
It's hard to believe that Kevin Costner never has appeared on this esteeemed blog...until now. The contract that brings him here was between Costner and an artist involving the sale of...you can't make this stuff up...bison sculpture replicas. Several years ago, Costner planned to build a luxury resort in South Dakota, the entrance to which would feature a field of dreams bronze bison being hunted by Native Americans (inspired, of course, by his experiences in the film Dances with Wolves). Although the resort,The Dunbar, never materialized, the sculptures were completed and later featured by Costner as a standalone tourist site aptly named Tatanka.
In the original agreement between Costner and the artist, Peggy Detmers, Costner was to pay Detmers $250,000 for the sculptures plus a share of the proceeds from future sales of sculpture replicas to wealthy resort visitors. Detmers claims that she charged Costner far less than the sculptures' actual value, which she estimated to be $4 to $6 million, in anticipation of a significant number of replica sales (because, as any wealthy resort visitor knows, who wants a snow globe when you can have bison...14 of them...you know, for your yard). Years later, when resort construction was delayed, Costner agreed to pay Detmers an additional $60,000. The amended letter contract also stated as follows: "[I]f The Dunbar is not built within ten (10) years or the sculptures are not agreeably displayed elsewhere, I will give you 50% of the profits from the sale of the [sculputures] after I have recouped my costs...."
In 2009, Detmers filed suit to enforce that quoted provision, i.e., to make Costner sell the sculptures and split the proceeds 50/50 with her. Costner claimed that no sale was required because displaying the sculptures at Tatanka qualified as them being "agreeably displayed elsewhere." Detmers claimed that she never agreed to that display location. The court thus had to decide how to interpret the arguably ambiguous term of "agreeably displayed elsewhere." Earlier this summer, Circuit Judge Randall Macy decided that the forced sale provision had not been triggered because Detmers had agreed, albeit passively, to have the sculptures displayed at Tatanka. Specifically, Judge Macy stated: "[Detmers's] significant involvement in the Tatanka project and her failure to tell Costner or anyone else that she did not agree with placement at Tatanka indicate she was agreeable to the sculptures' placement at Tatanka for the long term."
I suppose that the lesson for contract drafters is to specify what "agreeably" means or to avoid that kind of ambiguity altogether. Drafters at least should specify how the "agreeableness" is to be recorded in order to be effective, such as "upon written consent," with or without the typical "not to be unreasonably withheld" modifier. The other lesson is to never trust a man who thought that this movie and this movie were 'sure things."
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