A Baltimore Circuit Court jury awarded $940,000 yesterday to a public relations agency that was forced to merge because one of its key account executives was "snatched" by the Black & Decker Corp., allowing the toolmaker to end its business with the agency.
"We just thought it was a case of taking advantage of a small business with calculated paper moves, to save money and to snatch a star employee. It was grossly unfair," said Charles Wilson, of Baltimore, the jury foreman.
The seven jurors ordered Black & Decker to pay the former PR agency $645,000 in damages, while the star employee, David P. Olsen, of Columbia, was ordered to pay $295,000.
During the 7 1/2-week trial, Black & Decker was accused of trying to cut its public relations costs by retaining Olsen as a consultant. He had been handling the toolmaker's account at Image Dynamics.
The former Baltimore public relations company alleged that the power tool giant dropped the agency at a time when Black & Decker accounted for a third of its business.
The Towson toolmaker then hired Olsen as a consultant, even though the account executive had signed an agreement with Image Dynamics barring him from working for one of that firm's clients for two years after leaving the company. The loss of the Black & Decker account forced the PR firm to merge with another company, said Phyllis B. Brotman, founder of Image Dynamics and now executive vice president at Gray, Kirk/VanSant, the merger partner.
"I feel vindicated. I feel that I won not only for myself and my family, but for the public relations profession," said Brotman.
Both defendants said they planned to appeal.
"Black & Decker is disappointed with the verdict," said John E. McCann Jr., the lawyer who represented the tool company.
John E. Harris Sr., Olsen's attorney, said, "I'm confident of reversal on appeal."
Brotman hired Olsen in 1995 to be a senior account executive responsible for the Black & Decker business.
According to the suit, Olsen signed the two-year nonsolicitation agreement that forbade him from performing any services for an Image Dynamics' client once he left the company. A copy of the agreement was filed in court.
In December 1996, Black & Decker ended its contract with Brotman's firm, and Olsen left the agency. Court files contain a copy of a Dec. 20, 1996, letter from Brotman to Olsen saying that he was being let go because the company had lost the Black & Decker account.
A few weeks later, Black & Decker hired Olsen as its marketing consultant, even though it was aware of the terms of his employment agreement with Image Dynamics, the suit alleges. Image Dynamics was seeking $1.5 million each from Olsen and Black & Decker.
In October 1998, Black & Decker filed a $150,000 counter suit claiming "wrongful, deceitful and fraudulent billing practices" by Image Dynamics.
Black & Decker alleged that Image Dynamics billed for various services twice or for services that were never completed, charged excessive markups, and then covered up its practices.
Black and Decker also alleged that Image Dynamics had promised that two employees would work solely on the power toolmaker's account. The employees were then directed to work on other accounts at the same time, Black and Decker alleged.
All of its claims were rejected by the jury.