I just completed an intense two week trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But those two weeks were merely the epilogue of a more than decade-long odyssey that included the “second” worst day of my life. I went head to head with General Electric, more specifically, the financial arm of the GE, GECDF, on a contractual dispute that dates back to 2008. Being so deep in the weeds with all of the details of the trial, it was tough to zoom out on the proceedings – to get perspective. I called on our In House Writer, RV Advisor Podcast Host, and Creative Guy, Tom Alexander, to sit in on the trial and give us his take. Tom takes it from here.
The Day Gigi Beat Goliath
With a title like that, it sure sounds like a sword and sandal epic you’d see at the children’s matinee on a Saturday afternoon at the neighborhood theatre — that is, if you’re old enough to remember those things. Even though the title gives away the ending (we all know how “Titanic” ended, but we saw it anyway), the thrill is in the details. I was witness to a great spectacle — something I’d like to share.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that I’ve spent many years over my career writing. From commercials, jokes for comics, and radio and TV show monologues to film scripts, speeches, press releases, even instruction manuals, if it had words, I wrote it. But in the past couple of weeks, I got the chance to dial back a few decades when I worked for a local newspaper in Pennsylvania. It was mostly sports and community news reporting. Reporting is reporting, but sitting in a courtroom following an important trial which has its origins dating back to 2008 was a little out of my bailiwick. But being notoriously curious by nature and the fact that it was part of my job, I was dialed in and fascinated right from the jump.
Gigi Stetler, owner of RV Sales of Broward took on a monolithic conglomerate with a parent company we are all familiar with. GE Capitol’s (Yes, that GE) finance division, GECDF, was the Goliath in the room — towering, brooding, powerful, never loses. Playing David, Gigi Stetler, the unstoppable force with a big heart, the people person, and most decidedly, the underdog. Now that we’ve identified the leads, let’s see some action and hear some dialogue.
To set the scene, in 2008, GECDF, the finance company at the time for RV Sales of Broward, audited Stetler and removed her entire RV inventory without cause. They later claimed their decision to do so was based on an error in auditing. Stetler was in for a real fight, and more importantly, RV Sales was instantly transformed from a profitable business to one that was $11.5 million in debt. To add insult to injury, Stetler’s inventory was now in the possession of her biggest RV business rival, Camping World, and its owner, Marcus Lemonis. And some of that inventory was (get this) rented to Stetler’s former customers.
In 2009, an arbitration case between Stetler and GECDF was entered and finally went to trial in 2011. On the fourth day of the trial the two parties settled with an undisclosed agreement. Stetler also agreed to drop the class action suit which claimed that GECDF had wrongfully charged thousands of RV dealers hundreds of millions of dollars in interest. Everything over, right? Wrong. By 2013 GECDF had yet to live up to its end of the agreement. A breach of settlement suit was filed in Broward County, and the two sides were at it again.
“We have endured an incredible amount of corporate bullying and endless foot dragging to rack up legal bills and get me to back down,” said Stetler. “But I’m not going let GE or anyone else push me around. I was forced to rebuild my entire company because of a corporate error and I just want what is fairly mine. Nothing more.”
And so the trial began
At center screen, the Honorable William W. Haury Jr. Judge Haury is a tall, thin man, with grey hair who looks as though he could be the friendly family doctor from a 1970s TV drama. His serious yet kind presence commanded the respect and admiration of everyone in the courtroom. On the left, the legal counsel for GECDF headed by Gregory S. Grossman, a veteran of many legal battles from the firm, Greenberg Traurig. He was flanked by multiple attorneys, armed with their stacks of sworn testimony, documents, emails, and other pieces of admissible evidence.
Gigi Stetler represented herself, supported by her attorney, Peter D. Ticktin. Ticktin and Grossman made their opening statements followed by hours of testimony from Stetler as well as expert witnesses from both sides. During the first day, Ticktin painted a picture for the jury of Stetler’s life, her rise from nothing to become the first woman in the country to own and operate an RV business, and the time she tragically was stabbed 21 times — a day she called “the worst day of her life.” Day two of the trial had some unexpected theatre, as Ticktin complained of chest pains. Medics were called and the trial was suspended for the day. When things resumed, Grossman tried to trip Stetler up during cross examination, her deep knowledge of the timeline, documents, and facts, thwarted any major gaffes by her, which seemed to frustrate the GE team. As you might expect, Grossman took on a somewhat passive-aggressive demeanor, part psychotherapist, part attack dog. Conversely, Tichtin was soft-spoken, extemporaneous, affable. The final day dragged on with passionate testimonies and frequent objections. It was time for closing statements, and the verdict. However, the unexpected sometimes occurs.
In any great drama there’s a subplot which often has nothing to do with the central story. In this case, that subplot was a Category 5 hurricane named Dorian, which was churning away and bearing down on the Florida peninsula. Had South Florida taken a direct hit, who knows how long the trial would have been delayed? Still, a few days of waiting and wondering came in the middle of the trial. Fortunately, the monster storm took a northerly turn and everyone in the southern portion of the state was spared what would have certainly been unprecedented destruction.
When the trial resumed, on Friday, September 6th, all that was left was for GECDF’s team and Stetler’s attorney to make their closing arguments and the jury to reach a decision. Proceedings began shortly after 9:00 AM. Ticktin offered his closing statement, followed by Grossman’s statement and Ticktin’s rebuttal. Then there was a break for lunch and the waiting game followed which lasted approximately four hours. At 4:10 PM the court clerk read the verdict. There were eight counts in total and Stetler prevailed in seven of them. The court was thanked for its service and dismissed.
There were a few takeaways. First off, one thing is for sure, my decision early on in college that being a lawyer was not for me was confirmed when I saw the level of preparation it takes. Not that I don’t prepare with that I do, but holy cow! Do these folks sleep? Next, was the decorum in the courtroom. Just like on television, people seem a little more buttoned up, walk a little straighter, and are on their best behavior. Also like on television, there’s the theatre of the courtroom. It can be undeniably dramatic. Still, there’s a duty that needs to be done, and it seemed to me everyone wanted to do it right, like devoting themselves to something greater than any one person in the courtroom. The most moving example of this was the dismissal of the alternate juror. Just before it was time for the jurors to deliberate, he was graciously thanked by the judge and by both legal teams for doing his duty. He seemed truly honored to be part of the process. There are a lot of things that divide us in this country, this wasn’t one of them. That unified spirit reminded me of what we should aspire to every day.
In the end, the two legal teams parted ways. Grossman and his team gathered their things and respectfully said good bye to Ticktin and his fellow attorney, and of course to Gigi Stetler. She in turn said, “good fight.” After all, it is business. This isn’t two warring countries. I unexpectedly shared a ride downstairs in the elevator with the GE legal team. “You get everything in your notes?” Grossman asked me. “Yes sir. Have a nice weekend.” We did. But no one had a better weekend than Gigi Stetler.