MOBILE, Ala (Reuters) - The owner of a large southwest Alabama car dealership derided as “Taliban Toyota” by a competitor has been awarded $7.5 million in damages after a jury trial for his slander claim.
Iranian-born Shawn Esfahani, owner of Eastern Shore Toyota in Daphne, Alabama, sought $28 million in compensatory and punitive damages from Bob Tyler Toyota, claiming employees at that Pensacola, Florida-based dealership falsely portrayed him as an Islamist militant to customers.
“The feeling I received in the courtroom for the truth to come out was worth a lot more than any money anybody can give me,” Esfahani told Reuters on Tuesday.
Esfahani’s lawsuit said that Bob Tyler sales manager Fred Kenner told at least one couple considering buying from Eastern Shore Toyota in 2009 that Esfahani was of Middle Eastern descent and was “helping fund the insurgents there and is also laundering money for them.”
Esfahani, a naturalized U.S. citizen, fled his native Iran in 1980 following the Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah and swept Shi‘ite Muslim clergy to power, his lawsuit said. He opened his car dealership in 2007.
The Taliban, by contrast, are hardline Islamists in the central Asian nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan who follow an austere interpretation of Islamic law.
A Bob Tyler salesman was accused of telling the same couple that Esfahani was from Iraq and calling him a “terrorist” who put soldiers including the salesman’s brother in harm’s way.
“(Esfahani) is funneling money back to his family and other terrorists. I have a brother over there and what you’re doing is helping kill my brother,” the salesman told the couple when he called them on the Eastern Shore sales floor, according to the suit.
The jury deliberated for three hours before awarding Esfahani $2.5 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages on Monday evening.
Bob Tyler’s attorney Jeffrey Ingram could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, and Tyler and Kenner both declined to comment on the verdict through a dealership spokesman.
Esfahani said the dollar amount awarded by the jury was irrelevant unless the case sets a precedent by which other business owners can seek recourse against tactics he considers “un-American.”
“This case didn’t take aim at just Mr. Tyler,” he said. “It was intended to address any other business that resorts to those kinds of actions to win at their game unfairly.”
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston