Judge recommends ruling for singer’s widow on Soundgarden contract claims

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Chris Cornell of Soundgarden performs during their concert in Toronto July 2, 2011. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA – Tags: ENTERTAINMENT SOCIETY)

  • Band failed to show estate personally liable for recording contract
  • Live Nation merchandise agreement also not breached, magistrate said
  • Magistrate judge recommended allowing band to revise counterclaims

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(Reuters) – Vicky Cornell, the widow of late Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, should be allowed to escape, for now, the band’s breach-of-contract claims in their dispute over unreleased Chris Cornell recordings, a Seattle magistrate judge said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Michelle Peterson recommended on Thursday that claims related to the prominent grunge-rock band’s recording contract with Universal Music be dismissed because Soundgarden didn’t show Chris Cornell or his estate was personally liable under it.

Cornell’s attorneys Will Rava of Perkins Coie, Martin Singer of Lavely & Singer, and James Sammataro of Pryor Cashman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, and neither did Soundgarden’s attorneys Gabriel Gregg of Rimon and Paul Beattie of Gravis Law. Soundgarden’s label Universal Music also didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, and contact information for Cornell wasn’t immediately available.

Vicky Cornell, who administers her late husband’s estate, first sued Soundgarden in 2019 in Miami federal court, alleging the band members withheld the estate’s share of royalties to “strong arm” her into turning over unreleased recordings Chris Cornell made before his death in 2017. She filed an amended complaint after the case was moved to the band’s home state of Washington in 2020, asking for the withheld revenue, damages, and a declaration that the estate solely owns the recordings, among other things.

The band filed several counterclaims against Cornell, alleging among other things that she breached and interfered with the band’s recording agreement with Universal Music by refusing to give them the recordings, which it said were meant for a Soundgarden album covered by the contract.

Cornell argued that her late husband hadn’t individually been a party to the agreement and that any of his obligations ended after he died.

But, the agreement stipulated that individual band members could be made parties to the contract if the band was unable to fulfill it. Peterson said the band plausibly alleged that they couldn’t fulfill the contract without Cornell’s recordings, and therefore Cornell could be substituted into the agreement. She also rejected Cornell’s argument that his obligation ended when he died, because the recordings “already exist and are in the custody of the Estate.”

But Peterson said the breach claim should fail because the band didn’t allege that Universal actually chose to substitute Cornell into the contract.

Vicky Cornell had also moved to dismiss the band’s claim that the estate breached the band’s merchandising agreement with Live Nation when her representatives said the company didn’t retain the right to use Chris’ image on merchandise and asked to remove products that used it from the band’s webstore. Peterson agreed with Cornell because the band didn’t allege that Live Nation took any action as a result.

Peterson also said the court should dismiss the band’s contract-related tortious interference claims. Allegations that Vicky Cornell kept the recordings and used them for leverage didn’t show that she “acted with greed, hostility, or retaliation that would extend beyond exercising one’s legal interest,” Peterson said.

However, Peterson also recommended that the court give Soundgarden an opportunity to amend the dismissed claims.

The case is Cornell v. Soundgarden, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, No. 2:20-cv-01218.

For Cornell: Will Rava of Perkins Coie, Martin Singer of Lavely & Singer, and James Sammataro of Pryor Cashman

For Soundgarden: Gabriel Gregg of Rimon and Paul Beattie of Gravis Law

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