ISLAND FALLS, Maine — A local couple who lost their farm has won a $1.1 million judgment that found attorney Daniel Lilley “was professionally negligent” in representing them during a civil court battle with Agway Inc., officials said Tuesday.
A Portland civil-court jury found in a 6-3 decision on Friday that the Lilley Law Office should pay potato farmers Vaughn and Mary Sleeper $1.1 million in compensatory damages as a result of that negligence, court documents show.
Lilley, who did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday, has denied any misconduct. Known for defending co-defendant Mark Strong in the so-called Zumba prostitution case in Kennebunk and convicted murderer Jason Twardus, he has a year to resolve any appeal of the decision, said attorney Lee Bals of Portland, who represented the Sleepers during their lawsuit against Lilley.
“For them this is the end of a long nightmare. It is vindication,” Bals said Tuesday of the Sleepers.
Vaughn Sleeper said the victory won’t redress the loss in 2001 of Sleeper Hill Farms in Sherman Mills and other economic damage done to him during his nearly 15-year fight. The Sleepers lost the farm, he said, as part of the economic fallout from false claims and damaging actions taken by the New York-based agricultural company.
“I needed vindication. I knew what Agway had done was wrong to us, and I needed that,” the 52-year-old Sleeper said.
“I had an over 1,000-acre farm that had been in our family for 65 years,” he added.
In his defense, Lilley maintained that he had represented the Sleepers adequately. He said that they were disappointed at receiving only $126,000 in settlement from Agway’s bankruptcy proceeding when Lilley handled the case.
The Sleepers maintained that they were falsely accused by Agway of selling genetically contaminated potato seeds in 1999 and 2000. They also said Agway owed them more than $100,000 and violated anti-trust laws with intimidation tactics designed to drive the Sleepers out of business, Sleeper said.
They sued Lilley seeking compensation for emotional distress caused by his handling of the case, according to Bals.
The Sleepers asserted that Lilley and his law firm “failed to plead and/or appropriately pursue claims based on tortious interference with a business relationship, anti-trust and intentional infliction of emotional distrust,” court documents state. Tortious interference is when a defendant wrongfully interferes with the plaintiff’s contractual or business relationships, according to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University.
Lilley’s attorney, Edward MacColl, countered that claims against Agway were resolved at arbitration in 2005. At the start of the litigation, the Lilley Law Office secured a “voluntary payment” from Agway of $26,000 and an additional award at arbitration of $100,000, court documents state.
MacColl filed a motion for a mistrial shortly before the jury’s verdict. It cited several grievances regarding how the court handled the case, including allowing testimony and evidence it found to be prejudicial to the defense.
Lilley’s defense claimed the court allowed the plaintiffs, over the defendants’ objections, “to present evidence of alleged statements made by the defendants before the suit was filed, before Agway closed its seed operation and went bankrupt and at a time when the Sleepers and the local attorney had submitted detailed summaries of the Sleepers’ claim, including unfounded speculation that Agway executives were stuffing their pockets with ‘tens of millions’ of dollars annually based on a massive conspiracy to monopolize and control the east coast seed potato industry.”
The award is not subject to a damages cap, or ceiling, said Bals. Bals did not seek a specific monetary award in suing Lilley, Bals said.
The Sleepers said they are considering whether to file a complaint against Lilley with the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar, which was created by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 1978 to govern the conduct of lawyers as officers of the court.
“We haven’t crossed that road and it is all so fresh,” said Sleeper, who continues to work as a potato farmer on the farm, which he was forced to sell.
The award, he said, “will allow us to get back on our feet.”
Correction: A earlier version of this story indicated that Lilley had a year to file an appeal of the jury’s verdict. He has a year to resolve any appeal of the decision.