Appeals court reverses $100M verdict against Fluor, remands to Jefferson County for new trial

David Yates Dec. 30, 2008, 6:38am

An engineering company was given an early Christmas present on Thursday, Dec. 18, when justices on the Texas Ninth District Court of Appeals erased a $100 million verdict levied against it.

Six years ago, Conex International filed suit against Fluor Daniel and one of its employees, Leslie Antalffy over a 2001 overhaul project at an Atofina facility in Jefferson County.

According to its Web site, Irving,Texas-based Fluor Corp. provides services on a global basis in the fields of engineering, procurement, construction, operations, maintenance and project management.

In September 2001, Atofina hired Fluor Daniel as a consultant on part of the turnaround project to provide engineering advice for a head-to-shell weld and eventually on guidelines for post-weld heat treatment of that weld and various other welds performed by Conex and its subcontractors.

According to court documents, the evaluation by Fluor Daniel and its employee Antalffy led Atofina to make changes to the project plans which Conex claims led to more work and increased costs for the project.

"The difference in the original contract costs and the actual contract cost forms the basis of damages sought by plaintiffs," says a court document. "As a result, plaintiffs sued defendants Flour and Antalffy for tortious interference with a contract and negligent misrepresentation."

In its suit, Connex alleged the defendants did not make their project change recommendations in good faith and were purposely interfering with the project to harm Conex.

Conex also alleges that Antalffy made disparaging statements about Conex to their mutual client, Atofina.

In December 2006, a Jefferson County jury in Judge Gary Sanderson's 60th District Court sided with Connex and awarded the company $100 million in damages.

Two months later, Fluor and Antalffy appealed the judgment, arguing there was not enough evidence to support the jury verdict.

"The appellants challenge the legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence supporting the jury's findings regarding liability on Conex's claims for business disparagement and tortious interference," states the Dec. 18 opinion authored by Justice Charles Kreger.

In its appeal, Fluor contended that Conex failed to prove that Fluor caused Conex to do the extra work for which Conex billed Atofina $2.1 million and contends it could not have caused Conex to do the extra work because only Atofina could have made the decision to require Conex to perform the extra work. Conex claimed the extra work was due to "engineering miscues and revisions."

"Because we find the evidence supporting the jury's liability findings is factually insufficient, we reverse the judgment and remand the case for a new trial on Conex's claims against Fluor. Because the evidence supporting the jury's liability findings as to Antalffy is legally insufficient, we render judgment that Conex take nothing as to Antalffy."

After reviewing all the case evidence and hearing oral arguments, all but one justice concluded that there was not enough evidence to justify a $100 million verdict.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice David Gauntly wrote, "Proof that the false statements resulted from negligence would be insufficient to impose liability on Fluor. Hired by Fina to evaluate the work, Fluor was entitled to criticize the work, though mistakenly."

"However, Fluor had no privilege to maliciously make false statements disparaging Conex, even if those statements were made in an attempt to protect Fina from the cost of paying for the extra work Fluor said was required. The tort of business disparagement is an action for special damage resulting from an injurious falsehood maliciously made. Fluor crossed a line in maliciously and falsely attributing the need for the extra work to incompetence by Conex."

Conex was represented in part by the Chambers Templeton Cashiola & Thomas law firm.

Flour and Antalffy were represented in part by attorney James Gascoyne.

Trial case No. B164-082
Appeals case No. 09-07-100 CV

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