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A Los Angeles County jury has awarded $54.2 million to a writer who claimed the distributors and producer of a widely circulated children’s television series had stolen the idea for the program from her. Diane Russomanno and her former partner, actor/producer Gianni Russo, have been fighting since 1994 over the rights to the program, produced and distributed as “A.J.’s Time Travelers” — which Russomanno first created as “Ricky Rocket” — in which a young hero and his crew travel through time and space. Following a two-month trial before Superior Court Judge Joseph Kalin, sitting by assignment in the Los Angeles Central Civil West courthouse, jurors deliberated three weeks before awarding $46 million in punitive damages on July 20. During an earlier phase of the trial, jurors awarded $8.23 million in compensatory damages after finding the defendants liable for breach of contract, fraud, and interference with prospective economic advantage, among other causes of action. The jury simultaneously dismissed a counterclaim by defendant Time Travelers Inc., Russo’s former company, against Russomanno for breach of contract. Representing Russomanno was A. Barry Cappello and J. Paul Gignac of Santa Barbara’s Cappello & McCann. The lawyer for Time Travelers as well as the distributor, New York-based Bohbot Media, is Valencia, Calif. solo practitioner Linda Layton. Russo, best known for playing Carlo Rizzi in “The Godfather,” represented himself and did not appear for the trial; the jury attributed a $3 million share of the final award against him. Gignac said the jury foreman told him after their deliberations that the panel had considered damages much higher but settled on an amount “that would be reasonable so that it would hold up on appeal.” Perhaps the most influential testimony for the plaintiff, Gignac speculated, was that of damage expert Stephen Greenwald, “who took the jury step-by-step through what a concept for a children’s program is worth.” “Ricky Rocket” was Russomanno’s sole attempt at a Hollywood project, devised while she was teaching school and raising a child by herself, Gignac said. “The theory of the defense seemed to be that she was a liar and a bad person, and that backfired,” he continued. “The jury foreman called it ‘character assassination.’” Layton, the defense counsel, termed the award “pretty ludicrous and not based on any evidence,” adding that jurors indicated to her after the trial that they felt sorry for Russomanno. One of the most damaging moments in the trial for the defense came when Russo did not show up even though he was under subpoena and the judge announced that to the jurors, Layton said. “It reflected badly on everyone.” A related problem, Gignac responded, was that none of the defendants from the Bohbot entities came west to testify. “It was clear that they just didn’t care, and we hit that hard in our closing argument,” he said. Forty episodes of “A.J.’s Time Travelers” were made, and it premiered on the Fox Children’s Network in December 1994. The show has since aired worldwide and is currently seen on the WAM Network. Layton said she will ask the judge to set aside the verdict, and “anything that is left after that, we will most definitely appeal.” A hearing on post-trial motions is set for Aug. 11. The judge has indicated he will render a final judgment by Oct. 11.

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