Alvaro Mejer, Mejer Law, left, and Fernando Aran, Aran Correa Guarch & Shapiro.
Alvaro Mejer, Mejer Law, left, and Fernando Aran, Aran Correa Guarch & Shapiro. (AM Holt)

The horses spent years training for the U.S. Open Polo Championship, and they were the best of the best by the time they made it to the 2009 semifinals in Wellington.

Their owners cared for them so assiduously that you’d rarely see a fly in the stable, said the owners’ lawyer, Alvaro Mejer of Mejer Law in Coral Gables. But as 21 horses were led onto the field for the semifinals, they all started to look dizzy.

“To the horror of everyone, they started falling down,” Mejer said. “There were many vets watching the event. They all rushed to help the horses. Nobody knew what was happening to them. They started dying one by one.”

The mass deaths were so unexpected that the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office pushed to quarantine the polo players, thinking they might be dealing with a disease outbreak. Investigators even considered the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Autopsies revealed the horses were poisoned by a vitamin supplement containing 100 times the normal amount of selenium.

Lawyers had two questions to answer: Who was at fault, and what had the mistake cost the horses’ owners?

The polo team asked the Ocala-based compounding lab, Franck’s Lab Inc., to create the supplement, imitating a French product the horses had been taking.

Franck’s Lab acknowledged the mistake and paid an $850,000 insurance settlement. The horses also were covered by Diamond State Insurance Co., which sought more than $1 million from Franck’s to recover the amount it paid on the policy.

Diamond State, horse owner Quorum Management Co. and polo players Juan Martin Nero, Guillermo Caset and Nicolas Espain sued Franck’s Lab, pharmacy manager Anthony Campbell and prescribing veterinarian James Belden for about $3.9 million in damages.

Determining the value of the horses was a challenge, Mejer said. The defense disagreed with the plaintiffs’ appraiser, saying the horses were worth only about $2.6 million.

“Polo horses are bought and sold privately,” Mejer said. “People are very private with their transactions, and it’s hard to get information.”

The parties also disagreed on who was at fault. The plaintiffs believed Campbell should be held liable for most of the damages, arguing he should have double-checked the formula when the injectable solution didn’t turn out clear as it was supposed to.

“Since the formula turned cloudy and it was brought to him as the pharmacist in charge, we believed that he would be more so responsible,” said polo players’ lawyer Fernando Aran of Aran Correa Guarch & Shapiro in Coral Gables.

Campbell’s lawyer, Hector Buigas of the Law Offices of Keith J. Puya in Palm Beach Gardens, said the plaintiffs asked the jury to apportion 80 percent of the liability to Campbell, the last lab-related party left in the case with available insurance coverage.

Buigas argued another pharmacist didn’t verify the formula and Franck’s Lab should be held liable for the verification failure.

A two-week trial before Palm Beach Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo resulted in a $2.5 million verdict for the plaintiffs, with Franck’s Lab held 85 percent liable and Campbell 15 percent liable. Belden was cleared of liability.

About $1.1 million of the award will go to Diamond State, $1.13 million for the polo players and $290,000 to Quorum.

The defense filed a post-trial motion to apply a $850,000 setoff to the verdict for the settlement paid earlier.

Even if the setoff does not apply, Buigas regards the $377,000 verdict against his client as a victory because the plaintiffs suggested a $1.6 million settlement before trial.

“From Dr. Campbell’s perspective, the reason why the defense is not planning to appeal the verdict at this time is because the result was a win for the defense,” Buigas said.

William Gericke of Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia represents Diamond State Insurance.

Keith Puya of the Law Offices of Keith J. Puya in Palm Beach Gardens represents Franck’s Lab. Daniel Bachi of Sellars, Marion & Bachi in West Palm Beach represents Belden. The attorneys did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Case: Quorum Management v. Franck’s Lab

Case no.: 2010-CA-009112

Description: Negligent pharmaceutical production

Filing date: March 29, 2010

Verdict date: March 11, 2016

Judge: Palm Beach Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo

Plaintiffs attorneys: Alvaro Mejer, Mejer Law, Coral Gables; Fernando Aran, Aran Correa Guarch & Shapiro, Coral Gables; William Gericke, Cozen O’Connor, Philadelphia

Defense attorneys: Keith Puya and Hector Buigas, Law Offices of Keith J. Puya, Palm Beach Gardens; Daniel Bachi, Sellars, Marion & Bachi, West Palm Beach

Verdict amount: $2.5 million