If only every civil jury trial featured allegations involving a war-torn African country, the converted used of a jet, $5 million in smuggled gold and cash, and defendants who repeatedly invoked their Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
Those were just some of the disputed allegations a Dallas County jury considered when it issued a $34.8 million plaintiffs’ award on Sept. 21. But on Oct. 25, Dallas Judge Dale Tillery reduced the award to $19.3 million, adjusting the amount of money the plaintiffs could recover for a Gulfstream V jet after the jury found defendants CAMAC Aviation and CAMAC International had converted the airplane without the owner’s consent.
According to the plaintiffs’ first amended petition in Disiere Partners, et al. v. CAMAC Aviation, et al., the allegations were as follows: In 2010, Houston-based CAMAC Aviation leased a Gulfstream V jet from Southlake Aviation. As part of the lease, CAMAC Aviation agreed not to operate or locate the aircraft “in or over any area of hostilities” or in any country “for which exports or transactions” are subject to U.S. or U.N. Security Council limitations, including the Trading With the Enemy Act, 50 U.S.C. §1701.
On Feb. 3, 2011, the leased Gulfstream was seized in the Democratic Republic of Congo, after Congolese officials alleged the jet was being used to smuggle millions of dollars in gold from rebel-held territories in the country, the plaintiffs alleged. At the time of the seizure, the Gulfstream allegedly “was loaded with over $5 million in gold and cash.” Months earlier, the U.S. Department of State had issued a travel warning for the Democratic Republic of Congo because of “the ongoing risk of possible unexpected flare-ups of violence” in the country. On Nov. 29, 2010, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution placing restrictions on the illicit trade of natural mineral resources in the Congo.
Southlake Aviation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March 2011, after a financing company sought payment on the $43 million promissory note Southlake Aviation had used to purchase the Gulfstream, the plaintiffs alleged in their petition. The bankruptcy action was dismissed voluntarily in May 2011, and the Congolese government released the Gulfstream to Southlake’s lender.
David Disiere, Teresa Disiere, their partnership Disiere Partners and their company Southlake Aviation sued CAMAC Aviation, CAMAC International, and Mickey and Kamoru Lawal, alleging that CAMAC Aviation had breached its lease by taking the Gulfstream to the Congo. The plaintiffs also alleged that CAMAC Aviation, CAMAC International and individual defendant Mickey Lawal committed conversion by “flying the Aircraft to the Congo beyond territorial limits of the Lease and permitting it to be seized by government authorities overseas in a hostile area.”
In a June 27, 2011, answer and general denial, the defendants denied the allegations. In their July 11, second amended response, the defendants alleged that the plaintiffs’ causes of action were barred in whole or in part due to terms, conditions, disclaimers and waivers in the lease agreement. They also alleged that CAMAC Aviation made timely lease payments on the Gulfstream and that individual defendants Mickey and Kamoru Lawal were not liable for damages in the case because neither signed the lease agreement in his or her individual capacity.
The 134th District Court jury found that CAMAC Aviation allowed the Gulfstream to operate or locate to the Congo, in violation of the lease agreement and the Trading With the Enemy Act. The jury also found that CAMAC Aviation and CAMAC International converted the plane, but that Mickey Lawal did not convert the plane. The jury found that CAMAC International was 60 percent responsible for Southlake Aviation’s injury, while Mickey Lawal was 10 percent responsible and Southlake Aviation was 30 percent responsible.
In an Oct. 12 motion, the defendants challenged the entry of a final judgment, alleging that CAMAC Aviation and CAMAC International were not liable for conversion because the aircraft was returned and because Southlake was credited for the sale of the aircraft by the lender, among other things.
Judge Tillery lowered the reasonable cash value of the Gulfstream on the date of the conversion, entering a judgment of $19.3 million.
Scott DeWolf, a partner in Dallas’ Rochelle McCollough who represents the plaintiffs, says the case was exciting to try because the facts kept the jury interested. However, he says it wasn’t an easy suit to try because the two individual defendants repeatedly invoked their Fifth Amendment rights not to testify.
“It created special problems in getting things into evidence and tying things together in evidence. And you also had to worry about the jury getting bored listening to people take the Fifth,” DeWolf says. “If the defendants are taking the Fifth, you have to think that’s a good thing. But, sometimes, if the jury gets overexposed to it, it may lose its effect, and the jury might not think it’s such a big deal.”
David Moran, a partner in Dallas’ Jackson Walker who represented the defendants at trial, did not return a telephone call seeking comment. Neither did Macey Reasoner Stokes, a partner in the Houston office of Baker Botts, who filed the motion opposing the entry of judgment on behalf of the defendants.
DeWolf says he learned one thing in the litigation: “There is always a crazier set of facts out there than you can dream of.”