Monday, August 2, 2021
INDUCING BREACH OF CONTRACT: A STUDY IN SCARLETT
The tort of inducing breach of contract continues to fascinate. In Periwinkle Entertainment Inc. v The Walt Disney Co., Scarlett Johansson (left), the star of Black Widow sued Disney for tortiously inducing Marvel Studios, a subsidiary of Disney, to breach its contract with her. The complaint alleges that Marvel entered into a contract with Johansson to act in Black Widow. Because Johansson’s compensation was largely to be determined by box office receipts, the contract required Marvel to make an exclusive “wide theatrical release” of the film for a period of time, “the standard exclusive theatrical window.” Instead, citing the COVID pandemic, Disney caused its subsidiary Marvel to release the movie simultaneously with Disney’s release of the movie through its streaming service, Disney+. Viewers were permitted to watch the movie without going to theaters, which Johansson alleges diverted revenues from theaters, costing her millions.
The complaint provokes several questions. Johansson sued only Disney, not Marvel. Normally, claims of tortious inducement against a third party are joined with claims for breach of contract against the contract breacher. Various reasons relating to preclusion on factual and legal issues dictate that the all defendants should be bound by the same action. Then why did Johansson not sue Marvel as well as Disney? Did its contract contain a mandatory arbitration clause (and if not, why not?)? If it did, then the arbitration clause, if well-drafted, should have included claims against Marvel’s parent, Disney. That shoe may drop later.
The complaint pleads two counts of tortiously inducing breach. Normally a parent company should not be liable for causing a subsidiary to breach a contract. A court usually ignores the separate identities of parent and sub in claims that have concerted activity as an element (cf. the “bathtub conspiracy” cases in antitrust). But here it seems that the parent had an economic motive to divert revenue from the sub to its streaming services and away from Johansson by causing the sub to delay theater release of the film, in violation to its contractual obligation to Johansson. That seems to justify treating Disney as a separate, third-party who is a stranger to the contract with the sub.
A final question concerns remedies. Perhaps because it was hastily drafted, the complaint is sparse on its remedial prayers, seeking only punitive damages in the separate counts, but adding a catch-all ad damnum for all money damages caused by the tort. Damages for inducement usually equal the expectation damages for breach of the underlying contract. But these expectation damages may be speculative, given the uncertainties of the imaginary box office receipts that would have occurred with a weeks-long exclusive theater release.
But the tort claim, if established, should also justify a restitutionary remedy against Disney, measured by its unjust enrichment resulting from its wrongdoing. That calculation too, may be complex, however if one must determine how much of its streaming revenues were caused by its wrongdoing.
If another reminder were needed, Periwinkle demonstrates anew that Contracts and Remedies students should be familiarized with the tort of wrongfully inducing breach of contract as another weapon in their litigation arsenal.