Helen Turley and her husband, John Wetlaufer, have been awarded $255,000 in back pay, after a jury decided today that the celebrated winemaking couple did have a legal contract for consulting work with their former employer, Don Bryant of Bryant Family Vineyard, and that he had breached that contract.
But the jury of eight women and four men in Napa County Superior Court stopped short of giving Turley and Wetlaufer all that they had asked for in damages. Turley had sought back pay amounting to $556,958 for two years and two months of unpaid wages, along with the balance on an unpaid invoice. The jury found in her favor, yet mitigated the damages by $300,000 because it concluded that Turley had failed to take adequate measures to look for work after her relationship with Bryant ended.
Turley's attorney, Philip Terry, of the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based law firm Carle, Mackie, Power and Ross, said it was "not unreasonable" for the jury to look at mitigation. "It's a way to compromise, to give Don Bryant something," he said.
Turley said she was "relieved that we had our day in court" and was glad the trial was over and had finished without a mistrial. Neither Wetlaufer nor Bryant was present for the verdict.
The jury found that Turley and Bryant had a three-year contact that began on Jan. 1, 2002, and that Bryant had breached that agreement when, in a letter dated Oct. 16, 2002, he ordered Turley not to return to his property. During the trial, Bryant had contended that there was no contract, and he testified that he had accepted Turley's resignation in October 2002.
Turley had worked for Bryant Family since 1993, and under her direction, the winery's Cabernet became one of Napa Valley's best-known. But the relationship soured in September 2002 after Bryant disputed an invoice for a cellar worker and refused to pay it.
For most of the eight questions the jury had to address in the breach of contract charge against Bryant, the jurors voted 10-2 in favor of Turley. One of the dissenting jurors spoke after the trial and said he did not believe that there was a contract between Turley and Bryant, but rather an agreement for wages at $250,000 a year.
California law stipulates that verbal and written contracts carry equal weight, so Turley did not need a signed document to prove her case. However, three jury members interviewed after the trial all agreed that they felt there was more than an oral agreement after the Dec. 28, 2001, meeting in which Turley contended that the two parties had reached a three-year, $250,000-a-year contract.
One juror, Larisa Kuchta of Napa, said she believed the contract was solidified with letters back and forth between Turley and Bryant in early 2002, in which both parties acknowledged that they had come to an agreement in the Dec. 28, 2001, meeting. "That's what persuaded me there was a deal," she said.
The award of $255,421 is very close to what Turley had suggested Bryant pay her to end their relationship more amicably in a Sept. 20, 2002 letter that followed the invoice dispute. The letter stated: "If, however, you wish to change the essential terms of our agreement in ways outlined above, and in other implicit ways … we have no interest in continuing our association. In that circumstance, we think it would be in everyone's interest to sever relations as quickly and painlessly as possible and would suggest a one-year buy out by you of HMT at $250k effective 1/1/03."
Check our recent ratings of Bryant Family Vineyard wines.
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