A mistrial was declared Wednesday in the civil case against MGA Entertainment brought by rapper T.I. and members of his family after a recording of comments made by a witness regarding the appropriation of Black culture by corporations was mistakenly played for jurors.
MGA’s lawyers requested a mistrial be declared in the case after jurors viewed a video deposition of Moniece Campbell in which the Black former MGA customer says she stopped buying dolls she believes are based on the music group the OMG Girlz. “I did not want to support a company that steals from African Americans and their ideas and profit off of it and don’t give African Americans the profit,” Campbell said.
In the video, Campbell also insists the idea for MGA’s OMG Dolls “is stolen from the OMG Girlz,” adding that “people often steal from the Black community and make money off of it” and “hundreds” on social media platforms agree with the accusations against the toymaker.
The OMG Girlz was an all-girls pop group active between 2009 and 2015. According to T.I. and his family’s lawyers, a reunion concert on New Year’s Eve 2017 in Atlanta allegedly inspired MGA to release the OMG Dolls less than two years later.
Judge James V. Selna said Wednesday morning that the deposition excerpts were played for the jury in violation of his order barring references to cultural appropriation and racism. MGA’s lawyer, Jennifer Keller, called the recording “really, really prejudicial” against the company.
Selna said that instructing the jury to disregard the testimony would only amplify its resonance. The judge partly blamed himself for the testimony being played, as attorneys had presented the deposition to him Tuesday morning and MGA’s lawyers had objected to some excerpts.
“The court erred when failing to pick up the cultural misappropriation in those passages,” Selna said.
The judge also blamed attorneys for “the sheer volume” of deposition testimony he’d been asked to sort through in the case and the “rushed process” that left him reviewing critical issues from the bench during the trial.
“There were shortcomings on the part of everybody, including the court,” Selna said, adding that he doesn’t believe anyone had an “ill motive.”
T.I.’s lawyer, Erin Ranahan, tried to get the judge to reconsider his declaration, saying the deposition testimony in question wasn’t helpful to her case and that the rapper and his family’s legal team didn’t object to the ban on any racism talk during the trial.
“We did not want that theme before this jury in particular. This is not Los Angeles. There’s not a single Black person on the jury,” Ranahan said.
She said she saw jurors wince on Tuesday when listening to the testimony about the company stealing from the Black community.
“We don’t believe that the prejudicial effect of that statement is going to impact their ability to be fair,” Ranahan said.
Selna wasn’t swayed.
A few of the eight jurors spoke with attorneys after they were dismissed from duty, including an older white man who said the packaging of the dolls and their name led him to believe the similarities were not coincidental. The juror also remarked that out of a pool of 70 or 80 Orange County residents called for jury duty, not one person was Black.
“I’m not into rap at all. But your attacking the language, that to me was sort of appealing to racist-type feelings. ‘Let’s think less of these people because that’s the way they talk,’” the juror told Keller. “And that really to me really had nothing to do with this case. And I felt you bringing that up was just trying to case negative thoughts about that side of the trial. I was like, ‘What is the purpose of that?’”
Keller told the man, “I totally appreciate what you were saying” and said she didn’t have a chance to call her own witnesses to support her case that a children’s toy’s company doesn’t want to associate with groups “that use that kind of language.”
Keller also told the juror there were “a lot of other things we wanted to get into but couldn’t,” presumably referring to, among other rulings, MGA not being permitted to discuss the fact that the first season of the reality show T.I. & Tiny: Friends & Family Hustle focused on the family dealing with the patriarch’s release from prison.
Los Angeles-based MGA sued the couple and their companies after the toymaker was sent a letter asking for a portion of MGA’s profits or that production of the dolls be ceased. T.I. and Tiny have filed counterclaims alleging likeness misappropriation and theft of trade dress. Lawyers had not yet told jurors how much money in damages they were seeking, but Keller said in her opening it was in the tens of millions—not including punitive damages T.I.’s lawyers said MGA’s actions warrant.
Attorneys will reconvene in his courtroom next week to discuss a second trial.
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