Maris family to get $50 million from beer lawsuit

(U-WIRE) GAINESVILLE, Fla. – An Alachua County jury awarded $50 million Friday to the family of late baseball great Roger Maris after jurors found that beer giant Anheuser-Busch breached a “covenant of good faith” with Maris Distributing by taking away its distributorship in 1997.

But jurors objected later that a circuit judge limited their original $140 million award to only $50 million, saying their instructions were not adequately explained.

Circuit Judge R.A. “Buzzy” Green said state law requires that damages in such a ruling can only be the fair market value of the lost business, in an Alachua County courtroom Friday. A breach in the covenant of good faith is, in its most generic meaning, conducting business in an unethical manner and intentionally causing harm to another party in a business contract.

The jury found the business to be valued at $50 million, but said the distributorship lost $89,698,500 in sales since A-B took away the Ocala-based company in March 1997.

Jury forewoman Amy Richard said the jury spent many hours coming up with an exact figure to award the distributorship and were dismayed by the judge’s ruling.

“We spent quite a few hours coming up with the $89,698,500 and we felt very strongly that the $89 million figure was to be included in the damages awarded to Maris Distributing,” Richard said. “After spending three solid months listening to testimony, and all that it entailed, and then to have half our verdict ignored was a grave disappointment. None of us were the type of people to throw tens of thousands of dollars around lightly.”

“We followed the court’s instructions as they were presented to us in the jury instructions, and we awarded Maris the damages we thought they deserved. The number we wrote on the damages line of the verdict form was $139,698,500.”

Maris Distributing claimed that A-B plotted to take over the Gainesville-Ocala distributorship, which had been in operation for 29 years — since Maris was given the business by the Busch family as a reward for helping its St. Louis Cardinals win the 1967 World Series.

However A-B representatives allege that problems with the business, including the repackaging of overaged beer, falsified documents and the poor condition of Maris warehouses and trucks, forced the brewer to terminate the distributorship’s contract in 1997.

The distributorship was seeking $300 million in the case. A-B asked for about $8.6 million in its counterclaim against Maris Distributing, which also charged breach of contract and covenant of faith.

The verdict, read to a packed courtroom, said A-B’s counterclaims of breach of contract and breaches of the covenant of good faith were unfounded. It also said that the allegations of breach of contract against A-B by the Maris family were unfounded. However, it did state that A-B did breach the covenant of good faith with Maris Distributing when taking away its distributorship in 1997.

Willie Gary, an attorney for the Maris family, said that the ruling by the jury was the right one and the judge’s interpretation of state law was not in the best interest of the statute’s intent.

Gary vowed that he will file a $1 billion defamation lawsuit this week against A-B on behalf of the Maris family. He also said he will appeal both the family’s federal antitrust lawsuit against the brewery, which Maris lost earlier this year, and the decision by Judge Green that cost his clients the additional $89.7 million in damages.

Peter Moll, lead attorney for A-B, said the jury’s decision should be put into perspecitive and the award is a far cry from the $300 million the Marises claimed the value of the distributorship to be.

“This was a small victory in the sense of the value awarded,” Moll said. “We will appeal and if the Marises want to file another lawsuit, we will fight that one ’til the end also. Anheuser-Busch did nothing wrong in taking away the Maris distributorship.”

Richard said the jury looked at all the evidence and studied the contract carefully as they considered the allegations that Rudy Maris, president of Maris Distributing, did not respond to A-B’s attempts to correct the way the company was being run.

“We looked at the evidence and saw that contrary to what A-B kept telling us, Maris did respond,” Richard said. “He didn’t burn up the road doing it, but he responded in a timely and sincere manner to make the improvements that A-B said they wanted. And the more we looked, the more we came to the unanimous decision that the issues that A-B had previously referred to as ‘recommendations’ were suddenly turned into ‘requirements’ as grounds for terminating the contract.”

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