A federal jury in Alexandria yesterday awarded a Baltimore contractor $38,763 after it found that First Commercial Bank in Arlington had wrongly taken money from an account set up by the contractor's bonding company in order to recoup the bank's losses from an unrelated bad loan.
The verdict, which included $20,000 in punitive damages, appears to say that banks "don't have as extensive rights as they think they have to take money out of people's accounts," according to attorney Julian Karpoff, who represented contractor Joseph Ward.
Karpoff said about 80 other companies with accounts at First Commercial "suffered the same fate and may have certain rights to recover" from the bank.
According to the lawsuit, Ward's firm, Ward Electronics Services Inc. of Baltimore, secured a performance bond from Eastern Indemnity Co. of Maryland to comply with a contract Ward had obtained from the Army.
Under the bonding agreement, proceeds from the Army contract were deposited into a checking account at First Commercial jointly held by Ward and Eastern Indemnity. From this account, Eastern Indemnity paid Ward's expenses as his work for the Army progressed.
In December 1984, the bank called in an unrelated loan it had made to Eastern Indemnity. In January 1985, Eastern Indemnity was deemed insolvent and ordered by Montgomery County Circuit Court to liquidate its assets.
First Commercial, exercising its so-called "set-off" rights, reimbursed itself for Eastern Indemnity's unpaid loan by debiting about 80 accounts set up by Eastern Indemnity, including $18,763 from the account held jointly by Eastern Indemnity and Ward.
During the trial, Karpoff argued that the bank cannot exercise this "set-off" action on accounts held jointly by Eastern Indemnity and other persons. Ward was never informed by the bank that his account could be debited to pay off debts of Eastern Indemnity, according to testimony.