“Storage Wars” Lawsuit Uses an Old Statute to Question the “Reality” of a Popular TV Show

Photo by James Clayton

A contestant from “Storage Wars” has filed suit against the show’s producers alleging the show is anything but nonfiction.  The reality TV show is promoted by A&E as a true-life television show following “teams of bidders looking to score it big in the high stakes world of storage auctions.”  The show is a cross between an auction and a lottery, with contestants bidding on abandoned storage sheds in the hopes of finding something of high-dollar value inside.  David Hester is one of the players on the show and plays a prominent role as the prickly antagonist necessary for any reality show to succeed in the ratings.  Hester owns his own very successful consignment store and A&E describes him as a “big fish in the game” that needs every container to be profitable to “feed his massive machine.”

A big fish in a little pond is not getting enough to eat.

Like any businessman, Hester has quite a bit to gain and the most to lose of the other contestants.  His success on the show directly translates to the success of his business, and this fact alone makes it all the more plausible for him to be upset if he felt slighted for the sake of ratings.  While Hester has a lot to lose for his consignment store business, A&E equally has a lot to lose as “Storage Wars” is its highest-rated show.

Hester’s frustrations with the show’s producer, Original Productions, LLC, and distributor, A&E Television Networks, LLC, came to a head when he filed his lawsuit on December 11, 2012 in Los Angeles County Superior Court.  The complaint alleges causes of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, unfair business practices.  Hester seeks declaratory relief and claims damages in excess of $750,000.

A&E was apparently caught by surprise by Hester’s lawsuit and publicly stated on the date of the filing that they were unaware of a lawsuit being filed.  As of this writing, the defendants have not filed an answer to Hester’s complaint, but the media relations battle has already heated up and provides a likely preview of their answer.  A representative behind the auction company was quoted by TMZ, a popular celebrity news website, as stating that the show “only sells[s] legitimate units on Storage Wars. Every unit goes through a 64-day legal process and no one has access to units prior to auction.”  Other anonymous sources from the show have told the media that Hester constantly complains behind the scenes when he is outbid and deny that any illegal fixing of the show has taken place.

A law from the 1950’s provides the force behind a modern day lawsuit.

The driving force behind Hester’s allegation of unfair business practices against A&E and the other defendants is an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934. 2  Section 509 of the Act, which was originally passed following a number of game show scandals in the 1950’s and focused on radio shows, forbids the deception of the public by providing a contestant of a contest of intellectual skill with special and secret assistance that in essence prearranges the outcome of the contest.  Section 509 provides that those producing or participating in the scheme to deceive the public will be held liable and can face both monetary fines and a prison term of up to one year.

Perhaps the most infamous scandal, and actually quite similar to the one alleged by Hester, involved the show “Twenty-One”.  The mid-1950’s game show, which is fairly similar to “Jeopardy” helped pave the way for the amendment to the Communications Act when producers provided answers to contestants.  When one of the contestants did not win, he went public with the scandal.  Both the “Twenty-One” and “Storage Wars” scandals involve producers supposedly rigging a show to the benefit of certain contestants, and each disgruntled contestant’s allegations became public when he felt slighted by not winning.  As for Hester’s allegation of the producers paying for plastic surgery for less attractive contestants, it would not be the first time a reality star artificially improved his or her appearance to improve ratings.

Reality shows and game shows are a constant on television and will likely be a mainstay as long as there are prizes to be awarded.  Occasionally an outcome from a show will raise eyebrows, like Ken Jennings’ 74-show win streak on “Jeopardy”, but in all reality (pun intended) the controversy is likely what makes such shows so intriguing.  The predictable outcome would be a quiet settlement between the parties, with the world never knowing if people really do keep BMWs in their abandoned storage closets.  But if Hester plows ahead and is successful in his lawsuit, it will make reality TV producers think twice before finding otherwise illicit ways to boost their ratings.   The tagline of the show may provide the best legal strategy for David Hester: “Go Bid or Go Home.”

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About Adam Steele, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus (17 Articles)
Adam Steele served as Editor-in-Chief for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2013-2014 school year. Prior to law school, he attended N.C. State University, where he earned a B.A. in Political Science in 2006. He taught US History at a local high school for a short time before working as a paralegal at Millberg Gordon Stewart PLLC for three years prior to law school. Adam interned in all three branches of the state government, including with the Transportation Section of the N.C. DOJ, the Research Division of the N.C. General Assembly, and with the Honorable Paul C. Ridgeway, Resident Superior Court Judge in Raleigh. Adam spent the summer of 2013 clerking with the Honorable Sanford L. Steelman, Jr., N.C. Court of Appeals and Millberg Gordon Stewart PLLC. Adam spent the majority of his 3L year interning with Red Hat, Inc., and as a research assistant to Dean J. Rich Leonard. He graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2014.
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