Cheffins v. Stewart, No. 12-16913 (9th Cir. 2016)Annotate this Case
Plaintiffs and volunteers built the La Contessa, a replica of a 16th-century Spanish galleon, from a used school bus for use at the Burning Man Festival. Defendant intentionally burned the wooden structure of the La Contessa so that a scrap metal dealer could remove the underlying school bus from his property. Plaintiffs filed suit alleging that defendant violated the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), 17 U.S.C. 106(A), and committed common law conversion when he destroyed the La Contessa. The trial court granted summary judgment on their VARA claim and awarded attorneys' fees. The court held that an object constitutes a piece of “applied art”- as opposed to a “work of visual art”- where the object initially served a utilitarian function and the object continues to serve such a function after the artist made embellishments or alterations to it. Conversely, “applied art” would not include a piece of art whose function is purely aesthetic or a utilitarian object which is so transformed through the addition of artistic elements that its utilitarian functions cease. In this case, the court concluded that the La Contessa plainly was "applied art," and thus was not a work of visual art under the VARA and not eligible for its protection. Therefore, the trial court properly granted summary judgment to defendant on the VARA claim. The court also concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding the testimony of two of plaintiffs' expert witnesses, nor did the trial court err in its jury instructions on abandoned property and abandonment. Furthermore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to include jury instructions on lost profits and punitive damages resulting from the destruction of the La Contessa; in admitting evidence of drug paraphenalia surrounding the La Contessa as it sat on defendant’s property; and in denying plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment on their conversion claim. Finally, the trial court did not err in awarding attorneys' fees. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment.