In the latest chapter of a real-life family feud, the third wife and widow of drug smuggler-turned-government informant Adler “Barry” Seal and the three children she had with him claim they had every right to contract with a major motion picture studio for a new film with actor Tom Cruise portraying Seal’s colorful life that ended with his 1986 assassination in Baton Rouge.
Deborah Seal and her three children, along with Universal City Studios, are asking a Baton Rouge state judge to dismiss a lawsuit that Lisa Seal Frigon — the oldest daughter born of Barry Seal’s first marriage — filed against them in October seeking to halt production on “Mena”, which is scheduled for theatrical release in 2017.
Mena is the small town in Arkansas where Barry Seal, who was born in Baton Rouge, conducted operations.
Frigon, who says she administers Seal’s estate, contends the estate did not consent to sell the movie rights to her father’s life for $350,000.
But Universal, Deborah Seal and her three children counter in court-filed responses to the suit that they are merely exercising their free speech rights, and that Barry Seal’s right of privacy died with him on Feb. 19, 1986, when he was cut down by machine gun fire outside the Salvation Army halfway house on Airline Highway.
“The Seal defendants … as surviving spouse and children, have a Constitutional right to recount the story of their lives with Barry Seal, and to be compensated not only for the incursion upon their privacy, but also for their efforts in consulting on this project,” Denham Springs lawyer Mary Heck Barrios, who represents Barry Seal’s widow and her children, argues in documents filed at the 19th Judicial District Courthouse.
Universal’s attorneys, led by New Orleans lawyer Mary Ellen Roy, maintain the studio had no duty to disclose to Frigon that it made an agreement with Seal’s other heirs for their consulting services, life rights or any other rights they may have possessed.
“Universal’s business decision to pay other family members for their cooperation does not obligate it to pay Plaintiff or give her any basis to interfere with the production of the film,” she argues.
Roy warns that Frigon’s theory — that she controls the right to use Barry Seal’s name, photographic likeness and biographical information and that Universal cannot make Mena without her permission — would have a profoundly chilling effect on free speech.
“Filmmakers would be required to obtain approval from historical figures depicted in their motion pictures (or from their estates), who could veto controversial or unflattering portrayals,” she alleges. “Authors would not have been able to publish unauthorized nonfiction books about figures ranging from Hillary Clinton (Hillary’s Choice) and John McCain (Game Change) to Nick Saban (Saban: The Making of a Coach) and Lance Armstrong (Crash Landing) without violating those public figures’ right of privacy and/or publicity.
Roy termed the lawsuit meritless in his filings asking state District Judge Don Johnson to dismiss it.
Frigon’s attorney, Roy Maughan Jr., of Baton Rouge, has said Barry Seal’s estate is still under administration and that Deborah Seal and her children acted independently of the estate. By entering into an agreement with Universal, he said, they essentially stole money that belongs to the estate.
Barry Seal, a former commercial airline pilot, was indicted in 1984 for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 460 pounds of cocaine with a street value of nearly $170 million. He also was charged with causing several financial institutions not to report some currency transactions.
Barry Seal was fined as part of his plea deal and ordered to serve time at a halfway house, where drug traffickers tied to the Medellin Cartel in Colombia arranged for his slaying, prosecutors said.
Before his death at age 46, Barry Seal was expected to testify in a case against Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and others. Escobar was killed in 1993. Barry Seal had infiltrated the Medellin cartel and agreed to cooperate with U.S. authorities after his own 1983 drug-related arrest in Florida.
Three Colombian men were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in Barry Seal’s killing.