Plaintiff's Bribes Didn't Bar Its Unfair And Deceptive Practices Claim

Plaintiff's bribes to an employee of the Defendant didn't bar the Plaintiff's unfair and deceptive practices claim, per the Court of Appeals decision today in Media Network, Inc. v. Long Haymes Carr, Inc., The ruling upheld a $1.3 million jury verdict in favor of the Plaintiff, trebled by the Business Court to $3,776,085.

The bribes -- determined to be such by the jury -- included cash payments, use of a BMW, and tickets to all manner of entertainment and sporting events.  Those included everything from tickets to the circus, tickets for Broadway shows, and World Series tickets (2004, Cardinals vs. the Red Sox).

The payments were made to induce the Defendant to hire Plaintiff to participate in a lucrative advertising program for Defendant's client.  The client learned of the bribes, and conducted a confidential attorneys' eyes only investigation which confirmed the payments.  The employee was then fired by the Defendant.  Shortly after that, the Defendant terminated its contract with the Plaintiff, which Plaintiff contended had been represented to be non-cancelable.

The Plaintiff sued, making a variety of claims.  All of its claims were dismissed in pretrial rulings by the Business Court except for an unfair and deceptive practices claim.  The jury found for the Plaintiff.  It also found that the Plaintiff had bribed the employee, but that the employer had known about the bribes.  The Business Court entered judgment on the jury's verdict of more than a million dollars.  On appeal, the Defendant contended that the Plaintiff's "commercial bribery" barred its claim.  It said "since every transaction that [the Plaintiff] performed for [the Defendant] was spawned from commercial bribery, [Plaintiff] cannot recover."

The Court of Appeals disagreed.  It held that "commercial bribery has not been recognized as a defense, complete or otherwise, to unfair and deceptive trade practices in North Carolina."  It distinguished a New Jersey decision, Jaclyn, Inc. v. Edison Bros. Stores, Inc., 406 A.2d 474 (N.J. Super. 1979), in which the Court had dismissed a contract claim based on the plaintiff's bribery of an agent of the defendant who had entered into the contract in question.

The Court held that unfair and deceptive practice claims "are not subject to the same defenses as traditional contract and tort claims."  Judge Elmore ruled that "not only is the defendant's intent irrelevant when evaluating a UDTP claim, the plaintiff's intent and conduct is also irrelevant."  He that it had been error even to charge the jury on whether commercial bribery had occurred, but that the error had not affected the outcome.

This case spawned four rulings by the Business Court: an opinion on the discoverability of a settlement agreement, an opinion refusing leave to the defendant to amend its counterclaim because of undue delay (which was also affirmed by the Court of Appeals), an opinion dismissing Plaintiff's claim for damages based on diminution in value of its business (also affirmed by the Court of Appeals), and an opinion denying the successful Plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees (also affirmed).

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