A Los Angeles businessman has been awarded $38.3 million in a Nevada defamation case involving anonymous websites that compared him to imprisoned fraudster Bernie Madoff.
The verdict was returned Wednesday in favor of Bradley Stephen Cohen and his privately held real estate investment firm, Cohen Asset Management Inc., after a seven-day trial in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas. Phoenix attorney Robert Mitchell, who represents Cohen, described it as one of the country's largest Internet defamation verdicts.
"Mr. Mitchell and his client express their heartfelt gratitude for the jury's decision, and believe the jury's verdict sends a very powerful message to those who would abuse the Internet to defame others," Mitchell's law firm, Tiffany & Bosco, P.A., said in a statement.
Jurors returned the unanimous verdict, which included $3 million in punitive damages, against Northwest Territorial Mint, a Seattle-based company that operates a large facility in western Nevada; its owner, Ross B. Hansen; and employee Steven Firebaugh. U.S. District Judge James Mahan presided over the trial.
Neither the defendants nor their Seattle attorney, Dean von Kallenbach, could be reached for comment Friday.
Northwest's website describes it as a full-service mint, a precious metals dealer and a minted products retailer.
"The United States has fewer than 20 full service mints," according to the website. "Founded in 1984, Northwest Territorial Mint ranks among the largest of these mints, providing all-inclusive custom-minting services to individuals and institutions throughout the world."
It lists a mailing address in Auburn, Wash., and a "physical address" in Dayton, Nev.
According to the plaintiffs' trial brief in the defamation case, "Cohen is a self-made man and entrepreneur" who has lived in the Los Angeles area his entire life. He is currently president and chief executive officer of Cohen Asset Management, located in Century City, Calif.
Hansen and Northwest "are disgruntled former tenants of Auburn Valley Industrial Capital LLC," an affiliated entity of Cohen Asset Management, according to the plaintiffs' brief. Hansen and his company leased property in Washington from Auburn and in 2010 were sued for contaminating it with hazardous substances. The landlord was later awarded $3 million.
In April 2012, the plaintiffs alleged, the defendants published the website bradley-cohen.com, which compared Cohen and his company to Madoff and his investment securities firm. The website was taken down the following month.
The defendants soon published a second website, bradleyscohen.com, with similar contents. It includes pictures of both Cohen and Madoff and asks, "Is Bradley S. Cohen the Bernie Madoff of real estate?"
Mitchell said Cohen has had to deal with its devastating consequences for nearly four years.
"It caused him huge humiliation," the lawyer said.
Madoff was the mastermind of the biggest financial fraud in U.S. history — a $65 billion stock market Ponzi scheme that collapsed in 2008. He's now serving a 150-year prison sentence.