One family says the ratings-grabbing reality show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" turned their personal tragedy into a practical nightmare, leaving them with virtually nothing but a lawsuit.
The Higgins family, five kids between the ages of 14 to 21-years-old, lived in a two-bedroom apartment in California, orphaned by the deaths of their parents. Their story grabbed headlines.
Producers at the reality show took notice. The family's church first raised money to help them out. Then, “Extreme Makeover" contacted the church to arrange an interview with the young adults. Maybe they could be the next “deserving family.”
Fellow church members, the Leomiti family, offered to take the Higgins family into their home. The lawsuit claims the family's motivation wasn't to save the kids from a life of despair. It was to get a newly built nine-bedroom house, mortgage paid, a weeklong vacation and other gifts like computers, stereos and cars.
According to the suit against the Leomitis, ABC and the producers of “Extreme Makeover,” around the time the episode aired, the Higgins' moved out one-by-one as a result of a “orchestrated campaign” by the Leomiti family to get rid of them.
Mrs. Leomiti called the lawsuit “bogus” in an interview with the Abrams Report over the phone.
Charles Higgins, the oldest of the five Higgins children, and the Higgins' family attorney, Patrick Mesisca, explain their case to "The Abrams Report"
DAN ABRAMS, 'ABRAMS REPORT’ HOST: Charles, first let me start with you. Tell me first of all what happened here.
CHARLES HIGGINS, SUING 'EXTREME MAKEOVER': What happened was we were supposed to be promised a house that was to be built for everybody. My brothers and sisters were supposed to have a place to stay and now we‘re practically homeless. We‘re not together —we‘re not living together in one home. We‘re living in separate homes with each of our friends and it really hurts because I‘m 22.
I‘m trying to pull an extra load. I‘ve got a lot on my shoulders here. I‘m trying to be a good role model but it's hard when you don't really have a place to stay or a place for your younger brothers and siblings to call home, so they can wake up in the morning and they don‘t have to worry about where they are going to live or what they're going to do. It really hurts, it hurts me to see the look on their face every day because I know they worry.
ABRAMS: Patrick, were you literally thrown out of the house or is it basically that you felt that you weren‘t wanted there anymore?
HIGGINS: I'm not really going to comment on that right now because all of that is in the lawsuit. But practically what I‘m going to say is my brothers were done wrong by the show, by ABC.
ABC promised that we were going to have a home and that we were going to be together. And basically what happened was, we're not in a home. The thing is they keep airing our show almost like every other weekend and so that show, every time it gets aired, it makes money. They‘re practically making money off of us, and it's telling a story that's not really true. It's telling a story that we‘re all in a house together, we‘re happy, we're a loving family, we’re happier than we ever could be in our lives, but it's really not true.
ABRAMS: Mr. Higgins look, I'm sorry. Charles' family‘' story is obviously a heartbreaking one. It's one the led them, ABC, to act and to try and build this home to accommodate them. But I don‘t get how the program is responsible for what sounds like a family versus family squabble.
PATRICK MESISCA, HIGGINS‘ FAMILY ATTORNEY: The program, or, if you will, corporate entities that make up the program made a promise to the Higgins' family and told them that they were going to provide a home for them. The only home that was provided was an expansion of the residence in which the Leomitis live, and when all was said and done and the broadcast aired, the only benefit that the Higgins‘ children received was the right to be visitors in that home.
ABRAMS: But everyone knew that. I mean that clearly happened. By the end of the show, there was this big house built and they were all in the house. I mean you would think that if you were going to sue, that would be the time to sue as opposed to now, when it appears for some reason that you won‘t discuss, there was some sort of family versus family problem.
MESISCA: Well you have to realize that all this of has taken place since March 27 of this year. On March 27, that's when the program aired and here we are in August, a period of about four or five months and in that period of time, the Higgins children, all of them have left the Leomiti's home.
ABRAMS: But why is that ABC‘s fault? That's what I do not understand. If they want to sue the family and say, look, this was the deal. You knew what the deal was. You effectively suckered ABC into coming in here because our family was the one that made a great story. I get that. What I don‘t get is how ABC or the production company is responsible for these problems.
MESISCA: I can approach this on a number of levels. First, the Higgins have experienced a nightmare. This has been a very difficult time for them, loosing both of their parents last year. The home would have never been provided for the Leomitis in the absence of circumstances that the Higgins were involved...
ABRAMS: So you sue the Leomitis.
MESISCA: It was the Higgins who were told that a home would be provided for them, that a place would be constructed for them to live in. I think what happened was ABC and the production companies involved steered this into a joint enterprise, if you will, between the Leomitis and the Higgins', instead of just going forward and providing the Higgins with a place for them to live. There was never a disclosure made to the Higgins concerning the fact.
ABRAMS: Why is ABC obligated to build houses? I mean, they get to choose who they want to build a home for and the Higgins have this very compelling story and they're very deserving of it. But again, it seems to me that you're focusing on the wrong defendant.
MESISCA: We could argue this all day long. In California, and I think most jurisdictions, if a person responds to a need, a person is drowning in the middle of a river and you send a lifeboat out to get them, you can't turn the lifeboat around and not pick them up once you've reached the destination or worse, you can‘t just travel right past them and let them drown. ABC undertook here to provide a residence for the Higgins family.
I believe that the way this was done, the failure to give proper advice to the Higgins, as to what options were available to them, how their interest might most properly be protected.
ABRAMS: Very quickly, I got to read ABC‘s statement, “We‘re extremely proud of ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ and the positive impact the show has had on people‘s lives. While we don‘t comment on litigation, it's important to note the episode is about the rebuilding of the Leomiti family's existing home to accommodate the inclusion of the five Higgins siblings, whom the Leomitis had invited into their lives following the death of their parents.”
It sounds to me like you‘re going to have a real lawsuit against the Leomitis here. I predict that the lawsuit against ABC and the production company will be thrown out, but I am wrong in the past and more importantly, Mr. Higgins, look it sounds like you‘re a guy with a good head on his shoulders and I wish you the best of luck. You don‘t deserve any of this regardless of how the lawsuit comes out, so good luck to you.
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