Ala. Supreme Court turns down Tyler Toyota appeal of $7.5 million slander judgment

The Alabama Supreme Court has affirmed the $7.5 million slander judgment against Bob Tyler Toyota–which is the largest slander award ever upheld by Alabama’s highest court.

In November 2011, a Mobile County jury ruled the dealership had slandered Eastern Shore Toyota and its owner, Iranian-born Shawn Esfahani. Tyler’s sales personnel referred to Eastern Shore as “Taliban Toyota” and “Little Iraq,” according to court testimony.

In the lawsuit filings, Esfanhani alleged a couple visited Bob Tyler Toyota in 2009 and told the sales manager that they were considering going to Eastern Shore Toyota. The manager told them that Esfahani was “from the Middle East, and he is helping fund the insurgents there and is also laundering money for them.”

Another salesman allegedly told a customer, Pastor Michael Bonham, “I have a brother over there and what you’re doing is helping kill my brother.”

When he was teen, Esfahani fled from Iran in 1980. In 2007, he became a U.S. citizen and opened Eastern Shore Toyota after working in car sales for years.

A Mobile jury ruled in favor of Eastern Shore Toyota and awarded $2.5 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. Tyler’s appeal was turned down in March 2012 by a Mobile judge. Yesterday The Alabama Supreme Court this week upheld the decision and the award. (Read TylerOpinion)

Justice Greg Shaw wrote the opinion. In his conclusion he cited that the trial court had conducted a lengthy analysis of each of the factors in its decision and Shaw offer a brief sampling of its conclusions on whether the slanders were isolated incidents; the duration of the incidents and Tyler Toyota’s efforts to cover up the slanders : (BBT refers to Bob Tyler Toyota, EST to Eastern Shore Toyota, Keener was Tyler’s sales manager)

Isolated incident or repeated actions:
“The evidence indicates that the defamatory conduct here was not a case of a few isolated incidents of a rogue salesman or of salesmen making false statements about a competitor in passing. … [Esfahani and EST] … offered testimony from former and present BTT employees that BTT’s slanderous statements were part of BTT’s company policy for competing against EST.”

Duration of conduct: “[T]he Defendants’ reprehensible conduct insofar as the defamation per se continued from at the latest early 2008 until at the earliest March 2010, or at the least two years. This is a significant length of time for an all-out attack on the reputation of [Esfahani and EST].”

Intentional conduct or accident:
“The Court notes … that the factor of a concealment or cover-up of [BTT’s and Keener’s] actions causing harm to [Esfahani and EST] is supported by the … moving targets presented by the testimonies of Keener and … Tyler, as well as the convenient memory lapses, evasions, contradictions and inconsistencies running through their testimonies in their pre-trial, trial and post-trial testimonies. …[A]n abundance of evidence exists to establish the significant extent of the [BTT’s and Keener’s] animosity and resentment toward [Esfahani and EST].”

According to Justice Shaw, “Although BTT and Keener maintain that the testimony establishing their slanderous statements, as reported by EST and Esfahani’s witnesses, were isolated incidents, the evidence suggested otherwise. Further, though EST and Esfahani were able to identify merely a handful of BTT customers who personally heard the remarks, there are potential untold numbers of others about whom Esfahani and EST never learned.”