Jury awards $1.9 million in case rising from Menard-Hilbert fight

Keywords Law / Lawsuits / Legal Issues

The latest development in a longstanding legal battle between two business titans has resulted in a $1.9 million verdict against the leaders of the national home-improvement store chain Menards.

A Marion Superior Court jury handed down its verdict in favor of Westbridge Ltd. on Feb. 23 after a week-long trial. Law firm Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff LLP announced the judgment in favor of its client Tuesday.

The Westbridge verdict traces back to a bitter battle between John Menard, CEO of Menards parent Menard Inc., and Steve Hilbert, his ex-business partner and the former CEO of Conseco Inc.

Menard and Hilbert were beneficial owners of New Sunshine LLC, the largest skin-care products company in the United States. The Indianapolis-based business is the largest owned by MH Private Equity, a fund financed by Menard and previously managed by Hilbert and his wife, Tomisue.

New Sunshine hired Westbridge in 2011 to develop a business strategy to introduce Australian Gold sunscreen products into the Asian Pacific Rim market, where Westbridge works on behalf of U.S. clients. But when a fiery business dispute ensued in 2013, Hilbert was ousted from the equity fund and Matt Cotton, a Menards store manager, was appointed head of New Sunshine.

Cotton terminated all contracts with any business that had dealings with Hilbert, including Westbridge.

According to a Benesch Friedlander press release, the Marion County jury “determined that the termination of the business arrangement was unlawful,” leading to the award of actual and consequential damages. New Sunshine has moved to delay the entry of final judgment, and Westbridge objected Tuesday.

Neither Benesch Friedlander nor Kevin Tyra, counsel for New Sunshine and Australia Gold, responded to requests for comment on the case or the jury’s verdict.

Indianapolis attorney Peter French led the Benesch team consisting of attorneys Andi Metzel and Patrick Fitzpatrick and paralegal Monica Dabio, all based in Indianapolis.

The verdict is just the most recent development resulting from the contentious split between Menard and the Hilberts, once known in Indianapolis as a local power couple. The court fight that began in 2013 has included accusations of witness tampering, attorney misconduct and sexual harassment, and has even at one time involved now-first lady Melania Trump.

As with Westbridge, New Sunshine sought to cancel a contract that would have allowed Trump’s company, Melania Marks Skincare LLC, to develop and market a new product line, “Melania.” Menard sued to cancel the contract based on the split with Hilbert, alleging Hilbert entered into the contract after he was removed as CEO of the equity firm.

But Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson determined in 2013 that New Sunshine’s president at the time the contract was signed, Eric Weber, had authority to enter into the contract.

“The efforts to remove Mr. Hilbert from his positions at companies ‘upstream’ from New Sunshine have no effect on the license agreement’s validity,” Magnus-Stinson wrote in 2013. “There was no fraud, corporate waste, or any other wrongdoing attributable to Melania Marks that would warrant undoing the deal that the parties reached.”

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