NEW YORK — A jury on Friday decided in favor of U.S. and European shareholders who said the Paris-based Vivendi media group lied to the public about its shaky finances, setting the stage for the possible distribution of several billion dollars in damages to investors.
The company was found liable, but not its executives, according to the verdict in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
Vivendi said it will appeal. Lawyers on both sides said any potential payouts should it fail would be more than a year away. The jury deliberated 14 days before reaching its verdict.
Plaintiffs said in a release that the potential payout to investors could total $9.3 billion. A lawyer for Vivendi said it was impossible at this stage to estimate actual damages because it was not clear how many were in the class and who will seek payouts.
Regardless, shareholders' attorney Arthur Abbey said he believed the award was the largest securities class action jury verdict in history, measured by the number of people affected and the dollars involved. He said plaintiffs were elated.
Thousands of investors from the United States, France, England and the Netherlands said Vivendi covered up its troubles in 2001 and 2002 as the one-time public water company grew into a media and communications empire. The company flirted with bankruptcy before reorganizing successfully.
Jean-Marie Messier, who took over the company's top post in 1996, was forced out as CEO in July 2002, when the company was known as Vivendi Universal.
Defendants in the trial were Vivendi, Messier and former chief financial officer, Guillaume Hannezo.
Company plans appeal
The jury concluded on 57 separate claims that Vivendi was 100 percent responsible for misstatements or omissions that misled shareholders. It concluded that Messier and Hannezo were not responsible.
It found that Vivendi acted recklessly rather than knowingly in the damage the jury found that it caused. It also concluded that at times the misstatements or omissions inflated the company's stock by as much as $11.
The amount of money plaintiffs will receive if the verdict does not get reversed is based on the jury's calculation of how much the shares were inflated as a result of Vivendi's alleged misdeeds.
Outside court, Vivendi attorney Paul Saunders said the company was disappointed and is focused on its appeal, which he said "we expect to win."
"We feel very good about the appeal," he said, adding that the company would ask the judge within a month to toss out the case entirely.
He said the company was pleased that the jury gave the plaintiffs only half of the rate per share that they were requesting.
"To that extent, this is a partial victory for us," he said.
He said that if the case is not thrown out, it would take at least a year to determine how many people deserve compensation and how much money was at stake.
"We have just really begun to fight," he said. "We are going to challenge everything we can challenge."
‘Victory for investors’
Saunders said the company would challenge on appeal whether the court had proper jurisdiction over a foreign company, whether it was proper to calculate damages by estimating the amount of inflation that resulted to share prices and whether the judge's rulings were wrong during the trial.
In a statement, lawyers for the plaintiffs said: "This verdict shows that deserving investors can get just compensation through class actions, even against the strongest opposition. Very few of these cases go all the way to trial, and we are gratified at the outcome."
The verdict stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the Retirement System for the General Employees of the City of Miami Beach and several individuals.
Gerard Morel, a retiree from Caen, France, who testified at the trial, in a statement called it a "victory for investors everywhere."
Rick Rivera, pension administrator for the Miami Beach retirement fund, said in the same statement: "This case shows that pension funds can play a positive role in making sure the stock market is free of fraud and is fair for all investors."
Plaintiffs said in a statement that their estimated payout was based on an analysis by their economics expert assuming all class members submit claims. The total includes prejudgment interest that the court would have to rule was appropriate.
Any claims procedure to be supervised by the court will be announced only when the appeals process is completed.
During the trial, Messier testified that he acted in good faith when he tried to expand a French water company into a global media giant. But he said he did not foresee technological limitations and worldwide financial problems that contributed to its near-bankruptcy in 2002.
"Some of my management decisions turned wrong, but fraud? No. Never. Never. Never," he said.
Beginning June 2, Messier will stand trial in France on charges of misleading investors over the company's financial health while he was transforming the once-stodgy water utility into a high-flying film, music and pay TV conglomerate.
Messier, a one-time star of the French business world, and six other former top Vivendi executives were ordered to stand trial after a probe opened in 2002, following a complaint by investors alleging that they had been misled into buying or holding Vivendi stock.
The total recovery amount is based on an analysis by plaintiffs' economics expert assuming all class members submit claims. The amount includes prejudgment interest that may be added by the court. Class members' entitlements will depend on a number of factors, including their purchase and sale dates. A claims procedure, under supervision of the court, will be announced and publicized after the outcome is finalized.
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