World Publications and co-defendants Bonnier Corp. and Terry Snow have filed post-trial motions for a mistrial alleging, among other things, juror misconduct and prejudicial comments by the attorney for plaintiff Mark J. Horne following a $15.5 million jury verdict against the publishers and for Horne, a Clearwater, Fla., Internet entrepreneur.
The verdict, reached Jan. 31 in Pinellas County (Fla.) Circuit Court, awarded Horne $9.5 million for fraudulent inducement and breach of contract and $6 million in punitive damages related to the Winter Park, Fla., publishers’ 2004 purchase of assets of Horne’s company, Nautical Solutions Marketing Inc. The assets included 38 boating-related websites or names, including UsedBoats.com, NewBoats.com and YachtBroker.com.
Among the defendants’ post-trial motions, filed Feb. 10, are allegations that Horne’s attorney commented on something the judge talked about outside the presence of the jury; told the jury that Snow would be indemnified against any judgment (in other words, his insurance company would pay the damages); vouched for the credibility of witnesses; called defense witnesses liars; and instructed the jury in a theory of damages that the judge himself refused to talk about, said the defendants’ Orlando, Fla., attorney, Michael Crosbie.
Crosbie said the allegation of juror misconduct involved two jurors who friended each other on Facebook during the trial and joked on the website about sleeping through the court proceedings. Don Conwell, Horne’s Tampa, Fla., attorney, said the judge ruled on the juror misconduct motion Feb. 28 and denied a request for a mistrial. However, Crosbie said the judge said he intends to call those jurors into court and talk to them about their Facebook correspondence. The jury had been told not to talk about the trial outside the courtroom.
Crosbie expected rulings on the remaining post-trial motions by mid-April. If the judge denies all motions, Crosbie said, the defendants will appeal the judgment.
Horne alleged in his complaint that the defendants said they would name him president of their new Nautical Solutions division and pay him an annual salary, plus bonuses, amounting to no more than $6 million over three years, with the bonuses based on the division’s revenues and the websites’ value at the end of that period. Horne maintained that the new owners kept him from receiving the maximum payout by stripping him of his authority as president, assigning expenses to the Web group from other parts of the company and refusing to allocate enough resources to grow the division.
Conwell said Nautical Solutions was the third-largest network of boating-related Internet sites in the world behind the Trader Publications (now Dominion Enterprises) sites and Boats.com in 2004, when World bought it. He brought in an expert witness who valued the websites far higher than Bonnier had.
Crosbie said Bonnier and World had, in fact, invested “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in the websites, but they struggled, first against stronger, more sophisticated Web competition — YachtWorld.com and Boats.com — and then against an economy in recession. “It was a business opportunity that did not turn out as well as anyone hoped,” he said.
Crosbie said Bonnier wound up paying Horne many times the unit’s profits.
Bonnier Corp. was formed in 2007 when Sweden's Bonnier Group bought 18 magazines from Time Inc. and combined them with Winter Park-based World Publications, creating a new company that owns Boating, Cruising World, Field & Stream, Sport Fishing, Marlin, Popular Science and Popular Photography, among other magazines. Horne, who has gone on to found Flying Online Inc., parent of Flying.com, UsedAircraft.com and AircraftForSale.com, was an innovator in Web-based boat sales.
“It took 4-1/2 years to come to this point,” said Horne attorney Conwell. “It’s taken a lot of hard work — a lot of hard work by the judge, a lot of hard work by the jury. We certainly are happy with the results. We think our client is pleased to have it over.”
The case has been tried three times. The first two trials ended in mistrials — the first because of scheduling difficulties, the second because of family troubles.
— Jim Flannery