ANNAPOLIS, OCT. 19 -- Chris Coile, a prominent Anne Arundel County real estate agent, won the right today to personally promote his real estate business, even though he sold the use of his name to the giant Merrill Lynch Realty company as part of a $2 million agreement seven years ago.
After five hours of deliberation following a monthlong trial, a county Circuit Court jury found that Coile had not breached the agreement he made with Merrill Lynch and the jury rejected the company's claim for $17 million in damages. The jury also rejected Coile's $40 million countersuit claiming that Merrill Lynch was trying to ruin his reputation.
The fight between Coile and Merrill Lynch has its roots in Coile's decision in 1980 to give up his large and thriving real estate business and take up ranching in Montana.
Merrill Lynch, a subsidiary of the nation's largest stockbroking company, paid $2 million for Coile's business and the exclusive right to use Coile's name forever. Coile agreed not to compete with Merrill Lynch before Dec. 31, 1984.
While Coile hunted, fished and rode horses in Montana, Merrill Lynch dotted Anne Arundel County with house sale signs reading "Merrill Lynch/Chris Coile Inc." Its sales in Anne Arundel rose from $7.7 million in 1981 to more than $25 million last year.
Coile, however, became bored. "I'd rather have 15 more years of blazing excitement and have a heart attack at 55 than live to be 122 in Montana," he told an interviewer earlier this year. He returned to Anne Arundel and in January opened a new real estate business called Champion Realty. He hired many of Merrill Lynch's top real estate agents, and within weeks had more listings than any other real estate firm in Anne Arundel except for Merrill Lynch, and Long and Foster.
"Little did I realize how exciting it would be for the last nine months," Coile said after the jury verdict today. Ten days after his new business opened, Merrill Lynch sued him, accusing him of using his name to promote his business, sabotaging Merrill Lynch by raiding employes, and using insider information these employes brought with them.
Although Coile did not name his new company for himself, Merrill Lynch attorneys argued, his advertising campaign -- with slogans such as "Welcome Back Chris" -- made it clear he was running the company. The plaintiffs said the script of his company's logo deliberately imitated the distinctive signature that appeared on signs of the old Chris Coile and Associates company.
"The name was a valuable asset," Merrill Lynch attorney Francis Gorman told jurors last week. "We wanted it, we paid for it, we bargained for it. Chris Coile is a famous name in Anne Arundel County and throughout parts of the metropolitian area. It means real estate . . . . It's a good name. That's why were interested." Now, he argued, potential real estate buyers and sellers are confused.
Coile's lawyers, however, portrayed the Merrill Lynch suit as a desperate attempt to stave off legitimate competition. Coile abided by his agreement by keeping out of real estate until after 1984, attorney Rignald W. Baldwin said, and by not using his name as the name of the company. Coile had the right to promote his company, Baldwin said, and to use his name to do so. "You do not take someone's name away from them simply by allowing someone else to use it," he said.
Jurors agreed that Merrill Lynch exclusively owned the trade name of Chris Coile, but found that Coile had not violated the agreement in promoting his new business.