Fairfax jury finds for truck driver falsely imprisoned in resignation dispute

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010

After two years of driving as an independent contractor for Fairfax County-based Interstate Van Lines, Eugene Brye Jr. submitted his written notice in March 2008 that he intended to quit, effective in three weeks.

Six days later, as he headed from Interstate's Springfield headquarters to his home in Alabama to clear out his belongings, Interstate President John D. Morrissette called him and told him to bring back his trailer. "If you do not turn around immediately," Morrissette reportedly told Brye, "you will not like the consequences."

Brye didn't turn around. Interstate contacted the Fairfax County police, alleging that Brye was a terminated employee with a stolen trailer, and Brye was arrested at gunpoint by state troopers in Alabama, Brye's attorneys said. He spent the next 34 days in the Macon County jail, which he said was not delightful. Upon his return to Fairfax, and after another day in jail, prosecutors promptly dropped the charges.

Brye wasn't done. He sued Interstate for malicious prosecution and false imprisonment. And last week, a Fairfax Circuit Court jury ordered Interstate to pay Brye nearly $600,000.

"I was happy that people could see that the law is the law," said Brye, 43, who is now driving for Wheaton Van Lines. "It wasn't about the money. It was about the time I was in jail."

Morrissette and two of his attorneys did not return phone calls this week seeking comment. Interstate Van Lines is part of a larger corporation, Interstate International, which is "a $100 million-plus enterprise employing more than 300 people, maintaining a fleet of over 300 vehicles, and consisting of over 1,500 global service partners," according to its Web site.

"It's a horrifying experience for an innocent person to be incarcerated, and I think the jury realized that," said Brye's attorney, Jerry M. Phillips. Interstate "abused the judicial system by trying to resolve a contract dispute this way."

Brye said he lost 34 pounds during his month in the county jail in Tuskegee, Ala., but he also lost time and money. "I had bills. I had responsibilities," he said. He had to borrow money to make his payments. Then he had trouble finding another job because of the felony arrest on his record, even though the charge had been dismissed.

And, "my kids didn't understand," Brye said. He had been planning to take his children, ages 8 and 12, to Disney World over spring break, but instead he was behind bars.

Brye began driving for Interstate in February 2006, court records show. He used his own tractor, and Interstate provided Trailer 2414.

In March 2008, Brye decided to work for another company. On March 21, he faxed a notice to Interstate's offices, saying he planned to terminate his contract April 17, 2008, providing the notice required in the contract, Phillips said.

Brye said that he had a couple of face-to-face conversations with Morrissette after that and that the return of Interstate's trailer was discussed, but never demanded. Brye said that on March 26, 2008, he told the company president that he needed to drive his belongings -- clothes, as well as dollies, hand trucks and other moving equipment -- to his home in Evergreen, Ala.

The next day, Brye said, Morrissette called him. Brye was in South Carolina by then. He said Morrissette told him to turn around immediately. Brye declined, hung up and stopped answering his calls.

Phillips said Interstate officials misrepresented to Fairfax police that Brye was a fired, disgruntled employee making off with their property. Fairfax police used the Global Positioning System unit on the trailer to locate it, notified state police in Alabama, and Brye was arrested.

"It was about 10 state troopers out there, coming at me with guns," Brye said. "I was scared."

Next came the 34 days in the Macon County jail, where the cuisine was miserable, fights were frequent and inmates had figured out ways to leave their cells during lockdowns, Brye said. Meanwhile, Interstate retrieved its trailer, but no one retrieved Brye.

"They let me sit in jail for 34 days," he said.

The seven-person Fairfax jury heard testimony from both sides, then found for Brye. The jurors awarded him $50,000 in damages for malicious prosecution, $200,000 for false imprisonment and $340,000 in punitive damages, just under Virginia's cap of $350,000.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company