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Jane Petty’s revised lawsuit over Universal’s warehouse fire dismissed

By | Published on Tuesday 30 March 2021

Tom Petty

The latest attempt by Tom Petty’s ex-wife Jane to secure a cut of the damages and insurance pay-out received by Universal Music in relation to a 2008 fire at an LA warehouse has failed. Though this time Jane Petty’s lawsuit was dismissed based not on her late husband’s 1984 record deal, but on a marital agreement the couple signed in 1988.

Various artists went legal following a 2019 New York Times article about the 2008 fire at the LA storage unit used by Universal. That article alleged that the blaze had been much more significant than reported at the time, that thousands of master recordings had been lost, and that the major didn’t communicate those losses to affected artists, despite seeking damages for itself from the storage unit’s owner and claiming on an insurance policy.

The class action lawsuit initially filed in relation to the fire had five named plaintiffs: Hole, Soundgarden and Steve Earle, plus Jane Petty and the estate of Tupac Shakur. However, most of the claimants voluntarily removed themselves from the litigation, mainly after becoming convinced that they were not actually negatively impacted by the fire, due to there being back-ups of any recordings lost.

In the end, only Petty remained as a plaintiff. Which meant Tom Petty’s 1984 record deal with the MCA label, which later became part of Universal Music, fell under the spotlight. The key question was whether Petty’s royalty rights as defined in that deal also gave him a right to share in any damages or insurance payments resulting from the destruction of the master tapes created under the deal.

Last April a judge ruled that Petty’s lawyers had not presented a sufficiently strong case that that deal provided any right to share in the damages and insurance money. However, she was told that she could resubmit an amended lawsuit. Which she then did.

However, this time, when the judge got to assessing Petty’s amended litigation, a different set of questions were posed. Although it was originally widely reported that it was the Petty estate that was involved in this lawsuit, Jane Petty was actually suing in her own right. Because, although she and Tom Petty divorced in 1996, a 1988 agreement between the couple gave her 50% of the rights stemming from his MCA record deal.

However, according to Billboard, last May – after the original lawsuit had been dismissed on record deal grounds – Universal discovered a clause in the Pettys’ marital agreement which basically said that only Tom Petty had the right to pursue legal action in relation to the music rights covered by the 1988 contract. Jane Petty countered that it was “implied” that she had been granted the rights to pursue legal action on her late ex-husband’s behalf. But, Billboard reports, the judge considering the case did not accept that argument.

The clause in the martial agreement stating that only Tom Petty could enforce his music rights through the courts, the judge stated, “cannot be cancelled, modified, amended or waived, in part or in full, in any manner except by an instrument in writing signed by the party to be charged or by the Family Law Court judge”.

Needless to say – even though the big warehouse fire lawsuit was dismissed for a second time based on some very specific technicalities, rather than by the court interpreting more common record contract clauses – Universal has welcomed this latest ruling.

A spokesperson told Billboard: “The court today definitively rejected the plaintiffs’ case. This is the second dismissal of a lawsuit spurred by the inaccurate and misleading reporting of the New York Times. At this point, The New York Times has a responsibility to explain why its editors continue to stand behind a story that has been disproven with incontrovertible evidence from both UMG and many of the artists named in the story”.