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Lawsuit centering around Mullins film moves forward

Roy Lee “Chucky” Mullins’ life served as an inspiration to his Russellville community.

Two documentaries about his life are at the center of a federal lawsuit that appears headed to trial after a judge ruled there are material issues of fact that can be presented to a jury.

The lawsuit was filed by 38 Films, LLC, and Dr. Charles E. Smith, Jr., an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Mississippi. There are multiple defendants, including ESPN, Inc., Mt. Philo Films, LLC and Wendy Yamano, who produced the ESPN documentary It’s Time: The Story of Brad Gaines and Chucky Mullins, which originally aired in 2014.

The case was filed on August 31, 2016, and is pending in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.

In his lawsuit, Smith, the creator of 38 Films, LLC, alleges that he made a 2004 documentary about Mullins’ life called Undefeated: The Chucky Mullins Story.

The complaint alleges that in 2014 Yamano contacted Micah Ginn, who had been hired by 38 Films to assist with the project, seeking 38 Films’ consent for her to use portions of Undefeated in her film. An oral agreement was reached with terms whereby Yamano would pay 38 Films $3,000 for each minute of footage she used from Smith’s film.

Smith alleges he sent 38 Films’ entire digital archive to Yamano relying on the agreement. Three months later, Smith maintains Yamano called him and said 38 Films had no rights to any of the film that had been sent to her.

Yamano allegedly tried to change the terms of the agreement and proposed paying 38 Films a lump sum of $3,000. Smith maintains he did not agree to change the terms. On September 4, 2014, Smith alleges Yamano sent him an email requesting he invoice her for $3,000, and later that evening ESPN ran Yamano’s documentary.

Smith alleges he and his staff digitized and altered their footage and that Yamano’s use of it was in violation of their agreement.

The lawsuit alleges breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, conversion, copyright infringement, negligent hiring and seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction against the defendants.

When contacted by the Free Press, Smith declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Mullins, a Russellville High School graduate, went to Ole Miss on a football scholarship. Mullins was injured on October 28, 1989, when he made a head-first tackle on Vanderbilt fullback Brad Gaines. Mullins shattered four vertebrae in his cervical spine and was paralyzed as a result.

Mullins’ story caught the attention of the college football community, as well as his hometown. Mullins returned to school at Ole Miss in June of 1990 to finish his education. He died on May 6, 1991.

According to the complaint, Yamano’s documentary was supposed to focus on Gaines and how the incident affected his life. The plaintiff maintains it was really a documentary about Mullins and that defendants stole their ideas in the making of the film.

Smith seeks an injunction preventing the defendants from promoting, airing or profiting from their documentary in any way while the lawsuit is pending.

The defendants maintain that use of any footage from 38 Films doesn’t rise to the level of copyright infringement.

U.S. district judge Michael Mills’ October 30 order finds the presence of “material facts present in the copyright claim such that a jury could reasonably find for the Plaintiffs,” (10/31/17 Order, Page 8). As a result the court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, opening the door for the case to be tried before a jury.

Carver and Karen Phillips, the Russellville couple who raised Mullins after the death of his mother, were not aware of the lawsuit when contacted by the Free Press. The Phillips said they are disappointed and tired of people exploiting Mullins’ story in an effort for personal gain.

“They are all out for themselves,” Carver said. “When [Smith] went through with his documentary, he told us a bunch of lies. He made his money and told us he didn’t have to give us a dime.

“It’s a disappointment and disgrace to us to see money made off of Chucky’s name. We haven’t received a dime. We didn’t take in Chucky for money, but if there’s money made off Chucky’s name it rightfully should go to us.”

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