A Salt Lake City woman believes big corporations have stolen her multimillion-dollar idea. She sues, representing herself in court. Then, out of nowhere, a top New York City lawyer telephones and says he’s heard she might need some help. Soon, she finds herself represented by a cadre of experts.
But these legal experts don’t get her story down on paper. They don’t interview the other side. In court papers, they essentially admit she has no case. The judge throws her lawsuit out, and the woman becomes a national laughingstock.
If that sounds like a movie plot, it soon will be. A small British production company is working on The Sophia Stewart Story. It’s about the Utah screenwriter who claimed in a failed lawsuit to have written treatments that became the Terminator and The Matrix movies. Stewart’s story has reached cult status, spawning Internet conspiracy theories. Now, two years after her case was dismissed as bogus, Stewart is back in court alleging there was a conspiracy—this time, by her lawyers.
Stewart is suing her former lawyers, charging malpractice, breach of contract and fraud. The lawsuit, filed July 30 in U.S. District Court of Utah, additionally alleges the attorneys “conspired with other unknown persons with the purpose and intent” of sabotaging her case.
“I paid these guys $50,000. They didn’t do anything,” says Stewart. Her original 2003 case against Warner Bros., Terminator director and co-writer James Cameron, as well as Andy and Larry Wachowski, the brothers who brought The Matrix to the big screen, boiled down to comparing the work she’d sent to Hollywood against the movies. But Stewart’s lawyers didn’t enter any of the movies into evidence. U.S. District Court Judge Margaret Morrow wrote there was no way to make a comparison.
Stewart filed her case in 2003, but when it came time for trial two years later, her attorneys hadn’t interviewed any of the producers or directors she was suing, her new lawsuit alleges. They postponed Stewart’s own official pretrial interview so often that the judge finally banned Stewart from testifying, writing, “none of the evidence she submits may be considered.” According to court papers, her lawyers waited to ask Hollywood for information until the day on which all pretrial investigations were due. The judge ruled it was too late.
“Yes, she lost her case, in large part, because she wasn’t even able to tell her story,” says Ted McBride, Stewart’s new Salt Lake City attorney. “She would have been better off without these lawyers. Their utter and complete failure to do anything to protect or advance her interests in that case leads me to believe they never intended to do so.”
Most damaging to Stewart’s case was her lawyers’ lack of response to a key pretrial questionnaire from the other side. Such questions are called “requests for admissions” and, in Stewart’s case, lawyers for Hollywood asked her to admit she never wrote The Matrix or Terminator, to admit the producers of those films never had access to her work and to admit her work was nothing like either film.
Since her lawyers never responded, the judge had no choice but to assume the statements were true—that Stewart had admitted she made the whole thing up.
Denying Stewart’s lawyers extra time to prepare for trial, Judge Morrow criticized “the overall manner in which plaintiff has prosecuted the action, missing deadlines, seeking extensions and generally ignoring the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and court orders.”
In her original lawsuit, Stewart claimed she wrote a detailed movie idea called The Third Eye about a future Earth ruled by machines and a boy born to save mankind, sending it to a Hollywood studio in 1981 and later to the Wachowski brothers. The producers of the Terminator movies said Stewart had no proof her work ever reached James Cameron. The Wachowski brothers denied ever having seen Stewart’s work.
Court documents show Stewart’s case ending in a complete meltdown. Her attorneys kept asking for delays and offering excuses: One of them had a heart attack, another left the case and had to be replaced, the replacement lawyer didn’t understand the court deadlines. The judge didn’t buy it, writing that even if there were problems with one of the lawyers, Stewart had four attorneys working her case.
Only one of the four defendants returned a telephone call from City Weekly. Gary Brown, of Pasadena, Calif., said his role was “ministerial.” The actual trial preparation was the job of other attorneys from New York and Washington. Brown was brought in because they needed an attorney with a license to practice in California, where the original suit was filed.
That said, Brown sticks up for all the lawyers. “For her [Stewart] to be poking at us in this way is very unwholesome. These are all very good lawyers and not lazy people.”
In her new lawsuit, Stewart asks the court to order her previous lawyers pay her attorney fees—the ones she owes to Hollywood. When her original case was thrown out of court, the judge ruled Stewart should pay Hollywood’s attorney costs of $305,000 as punishment.
McBride, Stewart’s lawyer, notes the court argument about who wrote The Matrix and Terminator is over—and Stewart lost. But he still intends to prove through the new lawsuit that her original claims were true, then show her the money.
He is going to do what Stewart’s original lawyers allegedly didn’t: question Warner Brothers, Cameron, the Wachowski brothers and others in Hollywood to prove that, if not for Stewart’s former lawyers’ malpractice, she would have won the original case. Then he’ll ask Stewart’s old lawyers to pay her the equivalent of the millions the studios would have owed.