Kneski & Kneski






BY Valerie Greenberg Itkoff - Staff Writer


A defunct Opa-Locka packing plant whose parent company tried to settle a product liability dispute with an international equipment manufacturer for $200 worth of jar lids has settled its subsequent federal court suit for $1.125 million.

Landsman Packing Co., of New Jersey which owned plants in Opa-Locka and Red Hook N.Y., sued Continental Can Co., Inc. in 1983 in U.S. District Court in Miami, claiming that the vacuum capping machine it leased from Continental for its New York plant was defective.

Because of the poor packing of fruit products, both of Landsman's plants lost customers and both went out of business, according to Landsman's lawyer, Peter Kneski of the Miami firm Kneski & Kneski. Landsman subsequently lost the building it owned in Opa-Locka, when NCNB National Bank of Florida won a $300,000 foreclosure action in Dade Circuit Court in June 1989.

Before the exodus of customers began, Landsman owner Samuel Landsman in 1982 offered to settle any potential claim against Delaware-based Continental Can for 40 boxes of jar lids, each box containing 1,000 lids worth a half-cent each.

Continental Can, however, turned down the settlement offer, worth about $200 because it did not want to make a gesture that Landsman would view as a concession of guilt, according to a copy of a Continental internal memo.

Continental blamed the packing problems on Landsman and its employees. The problems "are all the result of poor maintenance and maladjustments of our equipment by customer personnel," the Continental memo states.

However, in December 1986, three years after Landsman filed its suit, Continental lawyer Hugh J. Turner offered to settle the case for $25,000. Turner stated in a letter offering the settlement that his client was willing to pay the $25,000 rather than litigate "for economic reasons."

Turner, with the Miami office of News York's Kelley, Drye & Warren, also stated in the letter, "I have every intention of recommending to my client that they consider seeking to recover sanctions in this case if we are forced to trial and your client loses, as I trust it will."

Landsman turned down the $25,000 offer because it had already spent more than that on legal costs, Kneski said. "We probably would have settled for a low to mid-six-figure amount," he said.

In May 1987, after a two-week trial, a Miami federal court jury awarded Landsman $5.83 million. U.S. District Judge Edward B. Davis found that the jury, in determining the direct damages portion of the award, included more of Landsman's expenses than it should have and he reduced the award to about $5.33 million.

But on Jan. 30, 1989, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal vacated the verdict and ordered a new trial. The appellate court found that Davis improperly instructed the jury on Landsman's breach of contract claim and that the jury ruled against the weight of the evidence on a counterclaim by Continental.

Continental had alleged in its counterclaim that Landsman was holding hostage the equipment it leased and was not paying rent for it. Although Landsman admitted in trial that it did have the machine and was not paying rent, the jury ruled against Continental. Continental, before the trial, won a summary judgment for about $26,000 for machine parts and equipment rental.

Facing a Feb. 12 date for the new trial, Continental and Landsman settled their claims on Jan. 31, with Continental agreeing to pay Landsman $1.125 million and both parties stipulating to dismiss with prejudice. Landsman agreed to release the machine it leased from Continental. Neither party admitted guilt in the settlement.

Continental, which maintains that the capping machine was not defective, agreed to the settlement because it wanted to avoid another jury trial and the possibility of another multimillion-dollar verdict, according to attorney Turner.

"We think that the settlement was a very good result from our standpoint," Turner said. "We thought the damages (in the first trial) were excessive, but there's always the possibility that a jury will find otherwise."

Kneski said his client agreed to the settlement because, "form the practical point of view, even if we got a judgment in the second trial, they'd take another appeal and it would be two years before we saw a dime."

"The impression I got was we were the little guys and they were trying to wear us down and outspend us." Kneski said. "It was a paper war and it was harder for me to fight than it was for Kelly, Drye & Warren." Back To Top

BY David Lyons, Staff Writer

A Dade jury Wednesday ordered a Brickell Avenue Bank to pay $4.4 million to the owners of a now defunct import business, saying the bank allowed a company official to improperly withdraw millions of dollars from the company's accounts.

The three companies that made up the coffee and seafood import business - Agronomics Finance, Venture Planners Management and Venture Planners Investments - all claimed that Bank Espirito Santo allowed Alvaro Montealegre, the companies' former financial officer, to withdraw more than $3 million as part of a massive embezzling scheme.

Montealegre's whereabouts are unknown. Now believed to be living in Texas, he has never faced criminal charges over the withdrawals.

But in separate lawsuits filed in 1988, the companies claimed that the bank was negligent in approving the withdrawals. No money should have been released to Montealegre, the lawsuits said, without a second signature from another company executive.

The firms, run by Albert Griffith and Ari Guerrero, both natives of Nicaragua, were based at 7544 SW 112 Ct. They traded currency to help fund their operations in Central America, said the attorneys, Peter and Paul Kneski.

According to court papers, Griffith first learned that money was missing when more than $1 million in checks he had written started to bounce. Griffin quickly became the subject to criminal and civil proceedings, and he agreed to make good on the worthless checks.

In a separate case brought against Montealegre in late 1989, Dade Circuit Judge Amy Steele Donner ordered Montealegre to repay Griffith. But Griffith never received any money.

During a trial this week before Dade Circuit Judge Murray Goldman, bank attorneys Lewis Kanner and Vincent Damian denied any negligence. They said that all of the withdrawals by Montealegre were authorized, and that it possessed written confirmation orders to prove it.

But the bank could not locate the documents. And a former secretary to the bank officer who handled the accounts testified that 60 percent of the transactions initiated by Montealegre were never confirmed by the companies.

The jury awarded $1 to Venture Planners Management, which as a holding company. $1.5 million to Venture Planners Investments and $2.9 million to Agronomics Finances.

Kanner, one of the bank's lawyers, refused to discuss the case.

Last week the Miami City Commission named a stretch of Southeast 14th Street between Brickell Avenue and South Bayshore Drive after the Espirito Santo Group, the financial conglomerate that owns the bank. Back To Top

By Janice Heller - Review Staff

George and Linda Bridges are relentless in their pursuit of more than $1 million embezzled from their company, Bridges Enterprises, Inc.

First, they sued their former accountant, A. Ernest Cruz, who was convicted of grand theft for taking money earmarked for improvements at a West Broward park their company manages. Cruz remains in prison and has appealed an order that he pay $1.01 million in restitution.

The Bridges also sued Cruz's brother, his sister and his parents, as well as his ex-wife and her parents. The couple bought half the duplex where Cruz's parents live and are trying to force a sale that could result in their eviction.

So far, the Bridges have won judgments against Cruz, his wife and the bank that handled the business account Cruz depleted.

They have yet to recover a dime.

The bank, Ambassador Savings and Loan, is insolvent, and the Bridges expect an appeal of the judgment they won from the Resolution Trust Corp. With payments unlikely from the thrift, the Bridges went after Cruz's relatives.

Stewart Chambers, who represents Cruz Family members, says his clients are innocent victims of the Bridges' vengeance.

"They are so angry that they are convinced that A. Ernest Cruz had to have either assistance in pulling this off or his family members benefited in some way," Said Chambers of Fort Lauderdale's Benson, Moyle & Chambers. "I don't begrudge the Bridges from feeling that they've been victimized. When that sense of victimization leads to senseless revenge and vengeance-seeking against innocent parties, that's when they have overstepped the line and that's what this system has failed to protect."

Chambers says his clients have spent $100,000 on lawyers fighting the Bridges.

"[The Bridges] put four-family members in bankruptcy," he said. "It just sickens me to death that somebody could do this."

The Bridges' attorney, Peter Kneski of Miami's Kneski & Kneski, denies the suits are part of a "vendetta."

"[The Bridges] are innocent people who were ripped off," he said. "All whey are trying to do is get their money back and they are getting all these roadblocks. The reason they haven't collected anything is because of the delays and the bankruptcies.

The Bridges hired Cruz in 1985 as an accountant and business consultant for Everglades Holiday Park. Cruz helped the Bridges open a money market account at Ambassador Savings. Without the Bridge's knowledge, Kneski said, Cruz managed to get a signature card for the account.

The Bridges discovered the embezzlement in 1989 when they wanted to withdraw $125,000 for improvements at the park. Only $1,600 remained in the account, Kneski said.

"When Linda Bridges found out about it she was in bed for a week," said Paul Kneski, Peter Kneski's co-counsel and twin brother. "They were financially ruined." The embezzlement nearly caused the Bridges to lose their company, which has 35 employees, he said.

The Bridges and Cruz's ex-wife, Ann Marie Biondolillo, for $25,000 in "household money" her husband gave her to pay the bills, Chambers said.

Biondolillo, an elementary school teacher, filed bankruptcy after the Bridges obtained a $40,000 judgement against her and her ex-husband for attorney fees.

"She didn't do anything," Chamber said, "The Bridges didn't care how much they had to spend, they were going to make her suffer. By the mere filing of the complaint, they accomplished their purpose".

The Bridges claimed that Biondolillo received a salary for working for her husband. But Chambers said Biondolillo was a housewife, whose husband spent the money on lavish gives on another woman.

During a 1992 hearing in Miami, visiting Bankruptcy Judge Richard l. Bohanon found that the Bridges had no case against Biondolillo.

"She didn't work and was a housewife, had an education not in business matters, but in criminal justice, and there is no indication that she had any knowledge, training or sophistication of any kind in business dealings," the judge said.

Kneski said that his clients brought the complaint in good faith. Bohanon agreed during a hearing in March and denied a motion for sanctions.

In one case, now pending in Dade Circuit Court, the Bridges bought half of a $120,000 duplex from the trustee of Ernest Cruz's bankruptcy for about $6,000 as part of their attempt to recoup their losses. Biondolillo owns the other half.

Now, under a so-called partition, the Bridges are trying to force the sale of the duplex. If sold, Biondolillo would be paid half for her share. But Cruz's parents, who are in their 70s and rent one of the apartments, could be evicted, Chamber said.

The Bridges are willing to sell their half of the duplex to Cruz's parents, Kneski said, but the parents, Abelardo and Celica Cruz, offered only $6,000 when the Bridges believe they could recoup $17,000 from a sale.

Said Peter Kneski":" This is personally the most frustrating case I've ever handled." Back To Top

By Luisa Yanez

All an Opa-locka fruit packer wanted was 40,000 jar lids, worth $4,000, from the company it blamed for spoiling its bottled fruit salads.

But Continental Can said, "sue us."

This month, after seven years of litigation, the two parties reached a jarring settlement. Landsman Packing will get $1.1 million instead of the lids.

"They could have gotten off much cheaper if they had settled for the jar lids." Said Miami attorney Peter Kneski, who represented Landsman Packing.

The case of the rotten salad began in 1981, when Landsman leased a capping machine from Continental, a worldwide packing firm. The machine was supposed to seal jars of Citrus Blossom salad, sold along the East Coast.

In 1982, after $200,000 is spoiled salads were returned, Landsman charged the capping machine was not working. Continental countered that Landsman's poor maintenance was at fault, court documents show.

Packing firm owner Samuel Landsman wrote Continental: "I deplore having to go through litigation. I merely want to settle this dispute in a very cordial manner," and he asked for the jar lids.

Continental officials turned Landsman down, and the dispute ended up in a Miami federal court, Kneski said.

In May 1987, a U.S. District Court jury awarded Landsman $5.8 million. The judgment was thrown out on appeal.

With the Feb. 12 start of a second trial looming, Kneski and Continental last week settled for the $1.1 million. Back To Top

Kneski & Kneski
Broward Office
Plantation Medical Arts Building/Suite 110
333 N.W. 70th Avenue
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Phone: (954) 583-8765
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Miami, Fl 33130
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