A bitter mother-son legal dispute over the ownership of Betty's Azalea Ranch, a popular Fairfax County nursery, came to an emotional end last week when a County Circuit Court judge ruled that the son was not a partner in the lucrative business.
Circuit Court Judge Lewis H. Griffith dismissed the civil suit brought by Steve Cockerham, 28, after deciding that he failed to produce convincing evidence that he and his mother, Betty Carroll, had orally agreed to be partners in the nursery business, which grossed over $700,000 in 1980.
"Thank God," said a relieved Carroll before bursting into tears after the two-day trial. "I spent more than $10,000 in legal fees defending myself and they didn't have any proof at all that there was a partnership. It's disgusting. I blame the lawyers and the legal system," she said.
The ill-fated mother-son venture began in 1973 when Cockerham left college to help his mother operate the Azalea Ranch, which is located at 12507 Lee Hwy., six miles west of Fairfax Circle.
Almost from the start, the two had different ideas about how to run the nursery and their relationship deteriorated rapidly when Cockerham attempted to expand the business by advertising and aggressively seeking new customers.
During the trial, Cockerham--who left Betty's Azalea Ranch in 1980 and opened his own landscaping business in the county--sought to establish that he and his mother had arrived at an agreement in 1973. It was understood, he contended, that she would provide the land and building necessary for Betty's Azalea Ranch and he would run the business and share any profits from the operation, which sells plants, fertilizer and does landscaping work.
Cockerham called a parade of business associates and former employes of the azalea ranch who testified that Carroll often referred to her son as her "partner" and included him in business decisions.
Carroll's lawyer, John N. Beall, attacked that evidence and at one point waved a loan application in which he said Cockerham had listed the nursery business as a "sole proprietorship." Beall also said in court that Cockerham, during the years he was with Betty's Azalea Ranch, never filed a partnership tax return for the business but that he and his mother prepared separate returns.