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Archive for Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Contest lawsuit jury’s mistake costs former Boeing engineer $1.8 billion

February 15, 2005

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— The most imaginative writer in town could not have penned the surprise ending to Ben Waldrep's "Why I Want to Live in Manhattan Beach, Calif." essay contest.

First, the winner of the writing competition declined to claim the grand prize: Waldrep's ocean-view home. And then the contest's 1,812 losers won $1 million each.

That is the unanticipated conclusion to a charity fund-raising promotion hatched five years ago by a retired aerospace worker that is being played out in a Los Angeles courtroom.

When his wife died and he decided in 2000 to move from his $800,000 Manhattan Beach home in suburban Los Angeles, Waldrep devised a plan to offer the dwelling as an essay contest prize instead of selling it.

Entrants would pay a $195 fee to participate in the writing competition. Waldrep pledged that 10 percent of the entry fees would be donated to a local charity that had assisted his dying wife.

But when the contest ended and Waldrep didn't move out of his house, one unhappy essay writer filed a class-action civil lawsuit alleging that the competition was fixed. Last week, a Los Angeles jury decided Waldrep had committed fraud and ordered him to return the entry fees, plus interest, to the writers.

It was when the jury returned Monday to award punitive damages to the writers that the plot thickened.

Jurors agreed that the contestants should additionally split between them the approximately $1 million for which Waldrep sold the house last year. But in a mix-up, jurors inadvertently awarded the 1,812 essayists $1 million each.

Jurors discovered their $1.8 billion mistake while chatting with lawyers after the trial. When they attempted to return to the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Andria Richey to rectify things, they learned they were too late: They had been dismissed.

Waldrep, 77, was not in court and could not be reached later for comment. But his lawyer vowed to try to have the judgment set aside next month when Richey reviews the jury's recommendation and hears objections. If necessary, Craig Forry said, he would seek a new trial.

A onetime engineering administrator for Boeing, Waldrep staged the essay competition after reading magazine and newspaper articles describing writing contests that had been used to dispose of a bed-and-breakfast inn and a cafe.

In announcing his contest in 2000, Waldrep said he was dedicating the competition to his late wife, Iris. He pledged to donate 10 percent of the contest fees to the Wellness Community, a nonprofit Redondo Beach group that counseled her as she was dying of lung cancer.

An entrant from British Columbia was named winner of the house in 2001. But the first-place essayist, David McNair, failed to accept his prize. In 2002 a losing entrant, Don Coulson, filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the contest was rigged.

David W.T. Brown, the lawyer for Coulson and other plaintiffs, said McNair refused to come forward to explain why he never collected his prize.

Since the verdict, Brown said he has been approached by Hollywood producers interested in turning the dispute into a movie.

If that happens, there are 1,812 writers ready to pound out a script.

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