The Alabama Supreme Court has upheld a trial court’s decision in favor of Indianapolis-based Herff Jones in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit that accused rival Jostens Inc. of stealing trade secrets and interfering with employment contracts.
Herff Jones, which sells class rings, yearbooks and graduation gowns, won a jury ruling in the case in April 2019. In a decision handed down on Friday, the Alabama justices essentially affirmed the jury’s findings and a $1.9 million award for Herff Jones.
“Ensuring the integrity of our commercial agreements is vital to our business, and we will always invest the time and resources to protect those interests accordingly,” said Burton Brillhart, general counsel for Herff Jones parent firm Varsity Brands, in a media release.
The case involved two sales representatives who worked for a Herff Jones distributor, Brent Gilbert of GradPro Recognition Products, from the mid-2000s until 2016.
According to the lawsuit, the sales reps, John Wiggins and Chris Urnis, began negotiating employment contracts with Jostens even before leaving GradPro despite having strict employment agreements that forbid them from selling for competitors in certain territories or sharing trade secrets about Herff Jones products.
Herff Jones said Wiggins and Urnis used the knowledge and contacts they gained at GradPro to steer accounts away from Herff Jones and to Jostens. The suit said GradPro lost dozens of accounts or relationships with schools in Alabama because of the reps.
In addition, the suit said, Jostens and one of its authorized representatives, Scott Moore, lured at least five employees away from GradPro to help solicit business away from Herff Jones.
The jury found that Jostens conspired and stole confidential and trade secret information, and interfered with Herff Jones’ contracts with its sales representatives.
It ordered Jostens, Wiggins and Urnis to pay nearly $1.9 million in compensatory damages to Herff Jones and another $580,000 in compensatory damages to Brent Gilbert of GradPro.
It also assessed punitive damages of $650,000 against Jostens, $25,000 against Wiggins and $10,000 against Urnis.
Jostens, Wiggins and Urnis appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. An issue at trial arose over whether Herff Jones and Gilbert were required to present direct, customer-by-customer evidence of the reasons why schools switched from Herff Jones to Jostens.
The Alabama Supreme Court determined Herff Jones and Gilbert presented ample circumstantial evidence that would allow the jury to infer that defendants’ wrongful conduct led to plaintiffs’ loss of the school accounts at issue.
Herff Jones, founded in Indianapolis in 1920, is a division of Dallas-based Varsity Brands.
Jostens, based in Minneapolis, is known for making Super Bowl rings and photo products, in addition to education memorabilia.
A spokesman for Jostens did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday morning.