Plaintiff Kellie Rodriguez is suing the Walt Disney Company for sexual assault after she was allegedly spanked by a warm-up comedian for a Disney production.  The incident took place at a December 2011 taping of the Disney Channel’s Good Luck Charlie, a children’s show frequently watched by an anonymous member of this journal.  Ms. Rodriguez attended the taping with her minor children and some other family members.  She has stated that during the warm-up comedian’s act, she was brought on stage to perform in a “silly dance” contest to the song YMCA.  In her complaint, filed in L.A. Superior Court, Ms. Rodriguez claims that once she took the stage, comedian Ron Pearson began to spank her repeatedly.  She called the “unwarranted and unconsented spanking . . . relentless,” and noted that it did “not cease until [she] physically turned around to stop it.”  The situation worsened when Pearson pointed to his cheek, requesting a playful kiss, and Ms. Rodriguez obliged in order to prevent “further embarrassment.”  According to Ms. Rodriguez, Pearson turned his head at the last second and kissed her on the mouth. She is now suing Disney for sexual assault, battery, negligence, negligent hiring, and various other charges.   She is seeking unspecified damages for the damage done to her health, well-being, trust, and confidence.

This lawsuit potentially raises issues under the doctrine of respondeat superior, where an employer can be responsible for an employee’s actions if they were conducted during the scope of his employment. Initially, Ms. Rodriguez will have to prove that Pearson is an actual employee of Disney instead of an independent contractor. This may be an easy inquiry depending on Pearson’s relationship with Disney, but could also be complicated by the fact that a separate company produces the show.  If Pearson is found to be an employee of the production company, then Disney will not be liable for his actions. Even if the issue of Employee v. Independent Contractor is easily resolved, other difficulties lie in the fact that this incident occurred during an artistic, comedic performance that Ms. Rodriguez bought a ticket for. It will be interesting to see how much leeway Pearson is given in the name of “art” and how a judge will handle the issue of consent. However, leeway for art or not, no one can consent to sexual assault.  And if Pearson is found to be Disney’s employee, and acting within the scope of his employment, it is unlikely that Disney will want to see a case go to trial where a mother was spanked “relentlessly” in front of her minor children, especially where the entire incident will probably end up on YouTube.

– Alexandra Pichette

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One Response to Trouble in the House of Mouse

  1. Collins Kilgore says:

    This raises interesting questions for potential claimants or tortfeasors on tv whose status as either employee or independent contractor is in doubt. I could see this being an issue because of the large amount of reality tv in production. While the people who appear regularly as personalities on reality tv shows presumably have signed contracts waiving rights to certain claims, these contracts may not waive rights to sue for intentional torts.

    Also, what protections do the unwilling participants on reality tv have? If a cast member from the Jersey Shore beats up someone in the club, is MTV liable? There is a strong incentive for the network to settle with the victim, mainly so it can secure a waiver to air the footage. Violence makes for good television, after all. Is there not an incentive for violence among the participants in reality tv? And while I doubt Disney would find sexual assault to be a ratings booster, there are certainly other networks that might not be so averse to illegal acts that provide such a spectacle. Does the public deserve any special protections from reality tv’s incentives for bad behavior?