In a dispute over the authority to control the philanthropic use of her name and likeness, a judge Friday issued a proposed decision in favor of late actress Audrey Hepburn’s eldest son.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Sotelo conducted a lengthy non-jury trial of the issues this spring on whether a charity, Hollywood for Children Inc., was required to get Sean Ferrer’s permission when using the Hepburn likeness for fundraising.
Sotelo heard final arguments in July and then took the case under submission before issuing his proposed decision Thursday. He said during a hearing Friday that the attorneys have 15 days to file any objections to the proposed decision.
The suit was filed in February 2017 by the charity, which is also known as the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund.
The suit alleged Ferrer sought to entirely control, limit and prohibit the fund from using the Hepburn right of publicity unless the party was willing to pay a significant portion of the fundraising proceeds to a charity of Ferrer’s choice, or to simply preclude the fund from utilizing right altogether. Before the charity could seek a jury trial on damages, the judge was tasked with declaring whether Ferrer legally had such control.
In his nine-page ruling, Sotelo found that Ferrer and his half-brother, Luca Dotti, are co-owners of the Hepburn right of publicity and that their unanimous consent is needed for licensing her likeness and image after March 2013. Either Ferrer or Dotti acting alone can terminate a license because there is no longer unanimous consent if one of them removes his approval, according to the judge.
The proposed decision, if finalized with a judgment in favor of Sean Ferrer, will preclude the charity from going forward with the rest of its case.
In his court papers, Ferrer’s attorney, Lawrence Segal, maintained that the preponderance of the evidence demonstrated during the trial that the charity’s contention that it had “broad, enduring license” to use the actress’ likeness was false and that his client’s contention that each use requires his consent on a case-by-case basis was true.
Outside the courtroom, Segal praised Friday’s hearing.
“I’m ecstatic, but not surprised,” Segal said.
Segal said his client is dropping the remaining claims in his countersuit against the charity so that a final judgment can be promptly entered.
Attorney Steven Young, on behalf of the charity, said he will file objections to the proposed statement of decision and that an appeal will follow.
“This judge didn’t come close to getting it right,” Young said.
Ferrer and Dotti, along with actor Robert Wolders, created the charity after Hepburn’s January 1993 death at age 63 of abdominal cancer, the suit states.
In her later years, Hepburn traveled the world as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF to raise awareness of children in need.
About a decade ago, Ferrer began having financial problems and went through a difficult divorce from his third wife, according to the lawsuit.
Beginning in about April 2013, Ferrer — whose father is the late actor Mel Ferrer — “intentionally interfered with the activities of the fund,” including taking control of its GoDaddy account, which manages the fund’s domains and emails, the suit states.
In January 2015, Ferrer tried to have Hubert de Givenchy back-date and falsify a letter concerning his prior donation to the fund of gowns worn by Hepburn and used for exhibitions, the complaint alleged.
The French fashion designer was asked to state that he had instead donated the gowns to Sean Ferrer and Dotti, but “de Givenchy rightfully refused to do so,” according to the lawsuit.
Sean Ferrer, 59, and Dotti, 49, were on opposite sides of the dispute. Sotelo, who said he found the issues in the case “fascinating,” added that he hoped the two brothers could overcome their differences and become close in the way siblings should be.
Mel Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn’s first husband, died in June 2008 at age 90. Dotti is the son of the actress’ second husband, psychiatrist Andrea Dotti, who died in September 2007 at age 69.