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Court helps out cable TV pirates

A federal appeals court says a father-and-son pair of cable TV pirates violated the law but a $30 million judgment against them was a little excessive.

A father-and-son pair of cable TV pirates violated the law but a $30 million judgment against them should be reduced, an appeals court said Tuesday.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 15-page decision that the two Chicago-area men were denied crucial information during their trial that could have helped their defense.

A three-judge panel said that Cablevision, which brought the suit against Frank Redisi Sr. and Frank Redisi Jr., should have made its chief of security available for depositions. The Redisis argued that because Cablevision waited until May 1999 to sue them, the two-year statute of limitations had expired and the lawsuit should be dismissed.

"As director of corporate security with responsibility for cable theft investigations, (Cablevision's Robert Astarita) alone could provide the answer to the relevant question of whether Cablevision had knowledge sufficient to trigger a duty to investigate more than 24 months before it brought suit," the court said.

Federal law prohibits the "manufacture or distribution of equipment" that can be used to descramble cable TV broadcasts without authorization. The law also says that cable companies must file suit "within two years."

The FBI raided the Redisis in 1992 in an investigation that led to the son pleading guilty to one count of distributing illegal descramblers. It seemed to have little deterrent effect, and the Redisis continued to sell approximately 2,700 decoders over the next seven years.

According to FBI records, Cablevision had been alerted about the Redisis' return to the family business by 1995, which could mean the damages award would be reduced from $29.8 million to something closer to $3 million because of the statute of limitations.

The appeals court also said that Cablevision's method of estimating how much money the Redisi family cost the company yielded excessively high numbers. Cablevision used the number of people in the Redisis? customer database multiplied by an estimate of $154.75 of lost revenue per month.

That was nothing but speculation, the judges said. "If a viewer spent a few seconds scanning through 20 or so pay-per-view movies with his remote control, and each movie costs $5, Cablevision would assess its damages at $100 ... (The law) does not give an injured party carte blanche to provide wild guesses at its damages."

But the family won't be getting off the hook; the judges said "even in a best-case scenario for the Redisis, we agree with the district court that they are liable for sales within the two-year period of limitations. That means at a minimum that they must account for their post-May 1997 sales of illegal decoders."