Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who ran the Walt Disney Company during the Harvey Weinstein years (1993-2005), have both denied any knowledge of Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct during those years. This would include any sexual harassment settlements made during that time. The Weinstein Company also denies any knowledge. These denials could be tested in a court of law should those alleging harassment and abuse choose to press the issue of corporate liability.
In 1979, two brothers from the outer boroughs of New York, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, had a dream and founded Miramax. Named after their parents, Miriam and Max, the company specialized in distributing smaller films, independent products the studios were not interested in.
The bigtime arrived in 1989 with the distribution of director Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, a smash that changed independent film forever.
What followed was more success than failure, and even some Oscar gold. To capitalize on their good fortune, rather than take the company public, the brothers decided to sell, and in June of 1993, the Walt Disney Co. purchased Miramax for $60 million.
With almost total independence, Harvey and Bob stayed on. The rocky relationship between the volatile but successful brothers and the stuffy parent company lasted 12 years.
In March of 2005, the brothers bolted Disney, left their beloved company behind, and founded The Weinstein Company.
Throughout these three decades, according to those who have just come forward, Harvey allegedly harassed, groped, and even raped numerous young women, many of them employed by his company in various capacities, including as actresses. Other alleged victims claim he used the promise/threat of employment to lure them into compromising situations.
Moreover, during this time, according to the New York Times, Weinstein settled no fewer than eight sexual harassment claims. One we know of goes back to 1997, when Miramax was owned by the Walt Disney Company.
As this scandal widens, it is becoming more and more obvious that this alleged behavior by Weinstein (without being specific, he admits and denies the allegations) was not a secret to everyone in Hollywood. Many, including actress Jessica Chastain, say outright that Weinstein’s predatory ways were openly discussed, that she was warned about working for him.
Which brings me back to the issue of corporate liability.
If, sometime between the years 1993 and 2005, when it owned Miramax, Disney was aware of Weinstein’s behavior, Disney was obligated to protect its employees, including young actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Rose McGowan, who claim to have been harassed, including Asia Argento who claims Weinstein raped her in 1997.
Outside of the “open secret,” another issue that makes one wonder about Disney’s moral, ethical, and legal liability, is the settlements.
Unless Weinstein settled using his own money, which is unlikely, how could Disney not know about corporate money spent for sexual harassment settlements?
My colleague Joel Pollak, an attorney, sees a potential liability:
As more alleged victims come forward, it is possible that some could decide to sue Disney for failing to exercise its arguable duty, during its ownership of Weinstein’s Miramax for more than a decade, to protect employees from a sexually predatory boss — if, in fact, Disney knew or had reason to know of his behavior.
By failing to intervene early, those in a position to hold Weinstein accountable arguably allowed him to continue his abusive behavior and could now conceivably face legal liability from victims — at least from those who did not sign the settlement agreements that have been revealed.
Pollak informs me that the same can be said of The Weinstein Company, the corporation formed by Harvey and Bob in 2005. The Weinstein Company may have fired Harvey, but brother Bob remains, as does any potential corporate liability.
And what about Bob? Did he not know about his own business partner’s–his own brother’s–settlements?
The women who have already accepted settlements from Weinstein probably cannot sue as a term of accepting that settlement.
But all those women who claim to have been harassed by Weinstein, those who have not sued, could very well have a case against both Disney and The Weinstein Company.
If one or both of those corporations knew what Harvey was allegedly up to, and did nothing to protect its employees, this scandal, which is already the biggest in Hollywood history, is only getting started.