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Lights, Camera, Verdict. Litigation with a Flair

March 6, 2009

Daily Journal

LOS ANGELES - When third-year Murchison & Cumming associate Nanette G. Reed stepped into a courtroom last month to argue her first trial – a landlord-tenant dispute between production company Lakeshore Entertainment Group and landlord John H. Hugo – she was assuming a role she'd taken on hundreds of times.

For the seasoned stage actress, her first gig as trial lawyer was just another day at the theater. And when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joseph S. Biderman called the court to order, it was as if a director had just yelled, "Action!" Reed paced up and down the Santa Monica courtroom, stopping in front of the jury box. With the confidence of a seasoned attorney, she asked the awaiting jurors a series of questions:

If an electric fire smoldered in your apartment for eight hours before you realized what was happening, should you be responsible for the smoke damage?

If you leave your rental home for two days and a gas leak occurs, is it your fault for not checking every gas valve before you stepped out the front door?

Then why, Reed continued, should her client be held responsible for a pipe that burst in a Pacific Palisades home while the tenant, movie director Bruce Hunt, was on vacation halfway around the world?

He shouldn't, the jury decided after 35 minutes of deliberation. The three-day trial ended Feb. 19 in a total defense verdict in favor of Lakeshore Entertainment Group, the guarantor on the property that Hunt was renting. Cave Productions v. John H. Hugo, SC08-7996 (L.A. Super. Ct. Feb. 19, 2009).

It's not often that new associates are given the responsibility of running their own trial. But Murchison & Cumming, a 65-attorney civil litigation firm based in Los Angeles, makes a habit of it, senior partner Guy Gruppie said.

And Reed is not your typical fresh-out-of-law-school attorney. The 52-year-old mother of three returned to school in 2002, after careers in theater and business, to attend Southwestern Law School's night program. She was admitted to the State Bar in 2006.

"She has an acting background, which is always a plus for someone who's in court," Gruppie said, "because a trial is a combination of logic and the law and theatrics all rolled into one."

Reed's pre-law school resume includes time as media director for an advertising firm, a stage actress in New York, CEO of an international travel company and a managing member of an entertainment production company.

"Law is an area of work in which all of your life experience helps you out," Reed said. "The way I carry myself and my public speaking skills come from the fact that I didn't go to law school when I was 22. That reads, too, with the jury."

Opposing council James L. Goldman of Pircher, Nichols & Meeks, who represented Hugo, said he didn't know it was Reed's first trial until midway through the proceedings.

The case marks the conclusion of a dispute four years in the making.

In 2005, Hunt, who was living in Pacific Palisades while doing post-production on the horror film, "The Cave," returned to his home in Australia for a two-week vacation. While away, a pipe burst in an upstairs bathroom, flooding the property. Hunt never returned to the house, and Lakeshore terminated the lease.

Months later, after an unsuccessful mediation, Cave Productions sued Hugo to recover advanced rent and the security deposit. Hugo countered by suing Cave for breach of contract. When Hugo filed bankruptcy a year later, the original claim was stayed and the cross-complaint went to trial.

To prove her client did not breach the contract, Reed centered her defense on why language in the renter's agreement, a form lease from the California Association of Realtors, was overly broad.

In the agreement, the maintenance clause reads that a tenant "shall immediately notify Landlord, in writing, of any problem, malfunction or damage. ... Tenant shall be charged for all damage to Premises as a result of failure to report a problem in a timely manner."

The wording, Reed argued, could unfairly be interpreted to mean that a tenant is responsible for reporting damage even if he isn't home.

"I have to think there are millions of these leases floating around California, which could be interpreted to say a tenant could never leave," Reed said. "Bottom line, it came down to what was reasonable."