‘Storage Wars’ Lawsuit Heats Up: Hester’s Suit Could Bring Bigger Legal Ramifications to Storage

January 29, 2013 5
‘Storage Wars’ Lawsuit Heats Up: Hester’s Suit Could Bring Bigger Legal Ramifications to Storage

The highest rated non-fiction show on television is fake? As recently fired Storage Wars star David Hester would say, “Yuuup!”

According to Hester’s suit, producers at A&E and Original Productions LLC have been staging the units since the show’s inception.

To be sure, the show makes the self-storage auction process appear more lucrative than it actually is, both for the auction winner and for the self-storage facility. Industry expert and attorney Jeffrey Greenberger agreed.

“I’ve contended from the beginning that the way [Storage Wars] presents how a sale occurs is fake.”

Hester, meanwhile, claims the entire show is a sham.

This does not look good for A&E; the network previously released a carefully worded, but intentionally misleading press release that claimed, “There is no staging involved. The items uncovered in the storage units are the actual items featured on the show.”

A&E recently responded to Hester’s allegations by filing a motion to strike his claim that A&E engaged in “unfair business practices.” Nowhere in this motion does A&E refute the fact that the show is scripted and staged, but rather A&E argues that portions of his lawsuit should be thrown out.

Hester’s “only purported basis for claiming [A&E’s] conduct was ‘illegal’ is an ambiguous reference to the Communications Act of 1934, which has no application to cable television programs.”

Citing California’s SLAPP statute, A&E attorney Kelli Sager says the claim that A&E engaged in unfair business practices must be thrown out–unless Hester can present evidence that there’s a probability he can prove his case. Essentially, the burden of proof is on Hester.

Through their court filing, A&E takes many jabs at Hester. They claim Hester only brought the suit forward after A&E complained about his unfair use of A&E trademarks and refused to give him more money.

According to them, Hester is attempting to “convert a garden-variety breach of contract claim to a tabloid-worthy drama, in which Hester portrays himself as a crusading whistle blower.”

A&E believes Hester cannot bring a claim of unfair business practices because:

  1. He did not file for a class action suit.
  2. The show is an expressive work entitled to first amendment protection.
  3. He did not personally suffer an “actual injury”–loss of money or property–as a result of A&E’s alleged unfair practices.

This third point is certainly contestable, especially if Hester won property at auction and was subsequently forced to return it to Off the Wall Antiques.

According to Hester, West Hollywood-based Off The Wall Antiques provides Storage Wars producers with access to a warehouse full of strange items. In turn, Off The Wall is regularly featured on the show. Of course, once the items are won at auction, they must be returned to Off The Wall.

The fact that A&E only sought to dismiss one of Hester’s five claims–”engaging in unfair business practices”–may mean A&E does not want to address the fraudulent nature of the show, or Sager may simply see it as the easiest claim to attack.

Hester, who has been buying at storage auctions for over 26 years, was fired from Storage Wars in December after butting heads with producers over his contract renegotiation and his use of A&E’s trademarks.

He complained to senior executives at A&E, the distributor, and Original Productions, the producer, that the staging of units was unethical and potentially illegal. He also complained directly to Ernest Avila, Original’s EVP of Business and Legal Affairs. The producers retaliated by firing Hester a week after rehiring him to star in the fourth cycle of the show.

According to Hester’s suit, “A&E regularly ‘salts’ the storage lockers that are the subject of the auctions portrayed on the series with valuable or unusual items to add dramatic effect, even going so far as to stage entire units.”

As a former star on the show, Hester saw this deceptive activity firsthand. He claims he saw the staging of a BMW Mini and newspaper clippings about Elvis’ death, among other items. In fact, Hester claimed that nearly every aspect of the show is fake. Interviews with cast members are scripted in advance, and “Original manipulates the outcome of certain auctions by paying for storage units on behalf of the weaker cast members who lack both the skill and the financial wherewithal to place winning bids.”

His lawsuit also alleged that Original paid for one of the show’s stars to receive breast enhancement surgery in an attempt to boost the show’s sex appeal.

Interestingly, self-storage facility owners are allegedly complicit in the show’s subterfuge, as they often help the Original Producers “salt” the units.

Hester is asking for $750,000 in damages for unfair business practices, wrongful termination and breach of contract.

With Marty Singer at his side, Hester may receive a large settlement. Singer, one of the most powerful attorneys in Hollywood, charges $750 an hour for his services and has been a long-time legal rep for Charlie Sheen, Sylvester Stallone, Quentin Tarantino and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The litigious Hester is no stranger to legal battles.

Last year Hester received a cease-and-desist letter from hip-hop artist Trey Songz to stop using his trademark “Yuuup” on Storage Wars and other merchandise. Hester responded by filing a lawsuit of his own; Songz countersued and they eventually settled the dispute outside of court.

If A&E and Hester do not settle this case outside of court as well, it could potentially drag on for quite a long time before it goes before a 7-day trial jury.

“If I were A&E, I’d try to delay [the lawsuit] two or three years. The show will probably run its course by then,” self-storage attorney Jeffrey Greenberger said.

More Important Storage Wars Ramifications

Greenberger’s concerns with the success of Storage Wars have nothing to do with whether or not the show is scripted and staged. He is more concerned that facilities who participate on the show are subjecting themselves to potential lawsuits.

“If you are one of the facilities where Storage Wars is filming, you are creating Exhibit A in a wrongful sale trial; a videotaped, nationally televised copy of this tenant’s lien sale for (sic) tenant to pick apart,” he wrote on his blog.

According to Greenberger, an even more significant implication of the success of Storage Wars is that “judges and potential jury members are starting to believe that every storage unit is a treasure trove.”

“In the old days, [lawyers] would at least have an argument that tenants who were habitually late paying their $75.00 a month in rent probably did not have $100,000 worth of antique guns in their unit…now judges and juries are going to think differently.”

“From now on we are going to be in a battle to disprove the value of every item, instead of trying to make the tenants prove there was value to their items.”

 Photos courtesy of csmonitor.com, offthewallantiques.com, and A&E/Getty Images

  • mssmanager

    Contrary to popular belief, Storage Wars has caused more hassle than good at our auctions. Sure, it attracts more people & curiosity, but uneducated bidders are coming without knowledge of the Chapter 59 Texas state law & are believing what they see on TV. They think they’re going to strike it rich off a unit and throw a fit when the lock isn’t cut off directly in front of them. Texas law states that when you post the notice of sale, you have to include a general description of the property. Obviously storage facilities have to make sure they’re not going to auction off garbage or a mostly empty unit – the day of the sale. The show has been a frustration to me as a manager & I’m glad Hester spilled the beans. It’s about time someone did.

    • http://blog.selfstorage.com/author/john-donegan John Donegan

      I agree. And it should be interesting to see how, or if, A&E admits publicly that they’re not providing an accurate depiction of the storage auction process. So far A&E and Original have been hiding behind first amendment protection, but at the very least I’d like to see these producers provide a disclaimer on ‘Storage Wars’ acknowledging that these auctions are not at all representative of how how real auctions go down. Thanks for your response. It’s great to hear from operators who are directly affected by the show!

    • JohnDonegan

      I agree. And it should be interesting to see how, or if, A&E admits publicly that they’re not providing an accurate depiction of the storage auction process.

      So far A&E and Original have been trying to hide behind first amendment protection, but at the very least I’d like to see these producers provide a disclaimer on ‘Storage Wars’ acknowledging that these auctions are not at all representative of how real auctions go down.

      Thanks for your response. It’s great to hear from operators who are directly affected by the show!

  • GA 400 Storage

    For the legitimate people out there running good storage facilities, Congratulations to Alex Duncan of GA 400 Storage in Cumming, Ga for obtaining your Certified Storage Manager certificate and for being only one of a couple of people to do so in the state of Georgia.

  • TITI

    CHILL T.V IS ENTERTAINMENT, BUSINESS IS BUSINESS, I LOVE THE SHOW AND THE YUP!!!!! GUY IS A KEY PLAYER IN THE SHOW* WORK OUT YA FINANCIAL DIFFERENCES AND KEEP ENTERTAINING AMERICA