Suing TV's 'Wheel' for a Fortune
October 24, 2003
Sajak's midair bearhug that October 2000 night at Constitution Hall was edited out of the broadcast, Wright says. But Wright, who is no longer in the market for a vowel, remembers it well. This week, the 38-year-old puzzle-guessing champion from Lorton filed a $2 million lawsuit against the show's producers over the back injuries he says he suffered from Sajak's moment of unbridled enthusiasm.
"I stick out my hand thinking he's going to shake it," Wright recalled. "Instead, he jumps onto me, with his legs and arms. . . . All I remember thinking was: 'This is Pat Sajak. Don't drop Pat Sajak.' "
Wright, 5 feet 7 inches tall and 153 pounds, said he nearly buckled under Sajak's full-weight embrace. And despite having won nearly a year's salary by solving three word puzzles and receiving a warm hug from letter-turner Vanna White on the show, within minutes after the show wrapped, Wright said he began to feel sharp pains in his back.
Since then, the father of two and computer circuit designer said, he has had back surgery and months of pain and rehabilitation, for which he contends "Wheel of Fortune's" producers, Sony Pictures Entertainment, should be forced to pay.
The incident took place during a road trip the game show made for a special "Washington Week."
Wright won $13,000 for guessing the phrase "You've Got Everything Going for You," $17,400 for "Caught in the Act of Congress" and $18,000 for "Foreign Dignitaries." He lost the bonus round, "Toboggan." He had only three letters and 10 seconds left to guess that one, he said yesterday.
"They say I signed a release . . . but that was for things like if you hurt yourself spinning the wheel," Wright said. "It doesn't cover the host jumping on a contestant. If it did, Pat Sajak could pretty much do whatever he wants to you."
A spokeswoman for Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. would not comment on behalf of the show. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington.
"We don't comment on lawsuits we haven't seen," said Susan Tick, Sony's head of corporate communications.
Wright said Sajak "didn't act with malice. He just didn't think." In his legal papers, Wright's attorney accuses Sajak, as an agent of Sony, of "reckless disregard. . . . and reckless and negligent conduct."
Gregory Lattimer, Wright's attorney, said his client first approached the company, which has $6.7 billion in annual sales, about providing a five- to six-figure medical settlement when a neurosurgeon told Wright in January 2001 that he needed surgery for a herniated disc. But Sony was "adamant" that it wasn't responsible for Wright's injuries, Lattimer said, and that upset the longtime "Wheel" fan, who had watched since it went on the air in 1975.
"They just kind of blew me off," Wright said of Sony's legal offices. "I wondered if Pat was even aware that I had been injured."
Through a spokeswoman, Sajak declined to comment. The popular and voluble Sajak, a Chicago native who got his start as an Army radio announcer for troops in Vietnam, was doing the weather on Los Angeles television when he was hired by Merv Griffin to host "Wheel" in 1981. Original host Chuck Woolery had decided to leave the daytime program after a seven-year stint. Sajak has said that he expected the show's popularity to fade in a few years and was stunned when it gained steam and a nighttime slot.
In addition to the shows Sajak taped in Washington in 2000, he spent a year here in 1970 after his discharge from the Army. He tried without luck to find a job in radio or television and instead worked as a hotel desk clerk.
Wright said he and his wife, Casandra, continue to watch the show regularly. "I still love the game," Wright said. But they notice that Sajak now keeps his distance from contestants who show the slightest signs of excitement.
"My wife said that all those years we watched, Pat Sajak never jumped on any contestants," he said. "She asked me: 'Why you?' "