Coquina Law Group recently tried a commercial litigation jury trial in the post COVID era. We were defending two companies and a principal in a case for Declaratory Judgment after we had the remaining counts dismissed with prejudice, with the exception of one count that relied upon the result of the declaratory judgment action. It was refreshing to be back in the court room, with live witnesses, jury, and no mask. Although we have become accustomed to attending hearings and depositions via Zoom, which has been a time and cost saving measure, zoom doesn’t work for trial. During COVID, we tried bench trials via Zoom with good results, but it was refreshing to be back in Court for trial.
The case was fundamentally a commercial dispute regarding ownership of a company. Plaintiff pled for Declaratory Judgment, which controlled the remaining issues of the case. Declaratory Judgments are governed by Chapter 86 of Florida Statutes or by 28 U.S.C. §2201 in Federal Court. A Declaratory Judgment establishes the rights and other legal relations of the parties without providing for enforcement. The cause of action may be necessary because the parties cannot agree on the rights, or the contract language is ambiguous. It simply clarifies the rights of the parties and does not provide for any monetary damages. It is commonly used in insurance coverage disputes, business disputes, and title issues. The Court resolves the dispute between the parties when there is a bona fide adverse interest between the parties and the Plaintiff has doubt about the existence or non-existence of its rights and the Court can remove the doubt.
A person seeking Declaratory Judgment may also demand additional, alternative, subsequent, or supplemental relief in the same action as provided by Florida Statute §86.011. For example, a Declaratory Judgment in favor of Plaintiff, depending on how the case was pled, can allow for them to amend for injunctive relief and monetary relief, depending on the circumstances. However, if the Plaintiff does not prevail, the case is over except for entry of Final Judgment and post judgment motions, such as motions to tax cost and attorney fees.
It is not common for Declaratory Judgment cases to be a jury trial, but, when it does happen, it usually involves an insurance dispute with factual dispute that determines the legal determination to be made by the Court. By seeking Declaratory Relief, the jury determines the factual dispute and the Court enters the Declaratory Judgment by applying the factual determination to the law, contract at issue, and/or stipulated issues. In our case, the Joint Pre-Trial Statement stipulated the issues to be resolved, contentions of the parties, and the factual determination would simply be converted into a Final Judgment.
During trial preparation, we prepared as if all exhibits would be going in and that inadmissible evidence may come in and need to be addressed. Our trial exhibits we brought into Court consisted of approximately 3,000 pages. Email communications consisted of approximately 2,000 of those pages. However, we prepared to try the case as simple as possible and narrowed the exhibits we knew would be introducing into evidence to fewer than 100 pages, and those exhibits were the ones that ultimately were introduced into evidence.
The jury was informed of the following summary of the claim at the start of trial.
SUMMARY OF CLAIM: Plaintiff claims that it remains a co-owner of REV VENTURES with PREFERRED DATA and that REV VENTURES owns 40% of LendmarX. Preferred Data, LendmarX, and Brian Rice claimed that an agreement was reached, and that Plaintiff owns REV VENTURES and the LendmarX interest was transferred to Preferred Data pursuant to the agreement made by Brian Rice and Isaac Moredock (Slow Brew, LLC).
As trial commenced, it was obvious that Plaintiff was taking the approach to limit and attempt to keep the issues simple and evidence low. In fact, Plaintiff’s theory attempted to be that there was no evidence of the agreement and that no one would agree to walk away from a startup company and leave equity behind. This was alluded to in voir dire and stated in Plaintiff’s opening, which changed the course of trial and had us maneuvering and changing our strategy. As a Defendant in trial, you have to change your strategy and approach on the fly. This case required us to drastically reduce and simplify our cross examination of Plaintiff and direct examination of our witnesses.
We had prepared our exhibits and provided a binder for exhibits to allow the jury to easily access and locate exhibits. The exhibits were Bates stamped. I have found this to be extremely helpful in jury trials, because although you may have a page or two that makes your case, the jury has to see it and read it themselves. When dealing with thousands or even just hundreds of pages, it is effective to direct the jury to the exact page they need to review in deliberations.
In closing arguments, we were able to show that there was documentation of the agreement to split and direct, and to the exact pages they needed to review, with dates and Bates stamps during closing arguments. We did this while showing the jury the document through the monitors in the Courtroom and discussed the meaning of each message.
The jury was instructed the following regarding the decision and verdict to be determined.
JURY INSTRUCTION The issue for your determination is whether Isaac Moredock and Brian Rice, individually and on behalf of respective companies, Slow Brew and Preferred Data, agreed to split their business relationship with Preferred Data assuming the 40% interest in LendmarX from REV VENTURES and Slow Brew receiving full ownership of REV VENTURES.
1. Did Isaac Moredock and Brian Rice agree to split their business relationship with REV VENTURES?
2. Did Preferred Data, LLC receive the interest in LendmarX, LLC and Slow Brew receive the full ownership of REV VENTURES as result of the agreement entered into between Brian Rice (Preferred Data) and Isaac Moredock (SLOW BREW)?
The jury returned shortly with both questions answered in the affirmative resulting in a complete defense verdict. As the predominant cause of action was for declaratory relief, the jury returned a factual verdict and the Court then had to enter Final Judgement in in favor of Defendants. The case was tried by Coquina Law Group Attorneys Ashby Underhill & Ginny Morgan.
Coquina Law Group, P.A., is a commercial and insurance litigation law firm with offices in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine Florida. We represent policy holders, businesses, and business owners in breach of contract claims, negligence claims, and declaratory actions throughout the State of Florida. We are experienced with insurance claims regarding residential property, commercial property, aviation and maritime.