Editor's note: Late this afternoon, the jury decided in favor of winemaker Helen Turley, awarding her $255,000 in lost wages from Bryant Family Vineyard. Check back soon for a full report on the verdict.
Closing arguments were heard yesterday in consulting winemaker Helen Turley's lawsuit against her former employer, Don Bryant, owner of Bryant Family Vineyard. The jury, which went into deliberation late in the day, is now deciding on a single count of breach of contract. A number of claims, including earlier fraud charges and Bryant's countersuit, have been dropped.
Turley and her husband, viticulturist John Wetlaufer, say Bryant terminated them without cause. They are seeking damages of $556,958.44 for two years and two months of unpaid wages, as well as for an unpaid invoice. The jury could choose to award Turley additional damages for wages she lost by not accepting new clients while she worked for Bryant.
To reach a verdict, a majority of nine jurors must agree upon whether Turley and Bryant in fact had a contract; Turley must show that Bryant accepted the contract terms before the jury can find him in breach of it. Much testimony and evidence was provided to demonstrate that the parties had different understandings of their working relationship. Napa Superior Court Judge Raymond Guadagni advised the jury that under California law, written and oral contracts have equal weight and that a contract could be created by "conduct."
Turley claims that on Dec. 28, 2001, she and her husband entered into a three-year contract, to commence Jan. 1, 2002, extending their employment with Bryant; Turley first began working for the winery in 1993. Their pay was set at $250,000 a year. Turley claims that Bryant breached this contact on Oct. 16, 2002, when he sent her a letter terminating her work and ordering her off his property.
Bryant denies that they extended their contact in late 2001, and contends that even if they had a contract, Turley breached it before he did.
Because the falling-out between the high-profile winemaking couple and the Cabernet producer whose image they helped build has centered around a disputed invoice, much of the testimony during the trial focused on whether it was Turley or Bryant who had decision-making authority at the winery.
In his closing arguments, Turley's attorney, Philip Terry, pointed out that unlike a criminal case, a civil case requires only a preponderance of the evidence. "If we tilt the scale by even an infinitesimal amount, you have to find in our favor," he said.
Terry told the jury that when Bryant hired Turley in 1993, she made it clear that she required authoritative control over wine and grape quality, and that Bryant agreed to this. "He never said, 'I'm the boss, the buck stops with me,'" Terry said. "He told her to run it like her own business."
Terry pointed to correspondence that followed the Dec. 28, 2001, meeting, in which both sides wrote that they agreed to continue their working relationship. "[Bryant] never disputed the three-year deal," said Terry, suggesting that Bryant "had his fingers crossed" when he made that deal, even though he began to pay Turley the agreed-upon salary.
In September 2002, Bryant disputed an invoice, and the relationship with Turley soured. At this point, Terry contended, Turley and Wetlaufer were prepared to continue under what they understood to be a three-year contract. Terry suggested that Bryant had decided to let Turley go long before the invoice dispute, but had been waiting for her to finish with his winery design and used the disagreement as a pretext to let her go.
Bryant's attorney, St. Louis-based John Musgrave, argued in closing that the jury would be unable to find that a contract had been created because the terms of the supposed contract were not clear enough that both sides could agree on what they were.
Musgrave contended that Terry was trying to paint a "sinister" picture of Bryant. In turn, he tried to depict Turley as arrogant, bringing up her sometimes-moniker of "wine goddess." "She may have 'wine goddess' on her card, but God created the grapes, God created the soil," he sermonized.
Musgrave also criticized Turley for not asking for a clearer definition of her role. "All this 'he said-she said' … that's why you have written agreements, folks." He suggested that Turley was misguided in believing she had "unfettered control" over business decisions for Bryant Family. "Show me the document," he challenged, "where Helen Turley had authority to override the decisions of Don Bryant. That's all — it's not there."
After the jury went into deliberation, both parties lingered outside the courtroom. Bryant gloated about his attorney's performance during the closing arguments. Speaking of the expense of the litigation to fight Turley's suit, he said, "Truthfully? It's worth the money to get rid of her."
Turley, who was less ebullient, said pointedly, "Well, we had our day in court."
Check our recent ratings of Bryant Family Vineyard wines.
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