A Baltimore County Circuit Court jury awarded the owner of the Bengies Drive-In $838,000 Friday morning, agreeing with his contention that lights from a neighboring Royal Farms convenience store were a nuisance that interfered with his business.
The verdict came after about four hours of deliberation Thursday and Friday. The case began Monday, but its origins stretch back nearly a decade.
"I won," a subdued Bengies owner D. Edward Vogel said after hearing the verdict, noting that appeals could drag the case out considerably longer. "I expected to convince the jury that something was terribly wrong."
In recent days, Vogel had said that the fate of the theater would rest on the outcome of the trial. After Friday's verdict, Vogel said he wouldn't celebrate until post-trial motions — including a possible appeal — were ruled on. But he allowed that the verdict, if it stands, bodes well for the Bengies' future.
"I don't see what the next obstacle could be," he said. "It makes our future look a little brighter."
Vogel had sued for $750,000 to build an 800-foot-long fence along Eastern Boulevard that would shield the drive-in from the Royal Farms' light, and $306,000 in compensation for lost business. The lights, he claimed, have delayed his annual opening for several weeks, until trees bloom fully enough to block the light, and prevented him from adding a second screen to the popular Middle River attraction that Vogel's family opened in 1956.
Bengies attorney T. Wray McCurdy said the verdict vindicated Vogel's long-proclaimed insistence that the Royal Farms lights bleed onto the drive-in property and distract customers watching movies on the Bengies' giant screen. He also faulted Baltimore County zoning officials for not taking steps earlier to remedy the situation, arguing they had tried to accommodate Royal Farms at the Bengies' expense.
"Every civilian I have spoken to about this case since 2008 has reacted the exact same way the jury did," McCurdy said outside the courtroom, "that what happened to the Bengies Drive-In in this situation was plain wrong."
Jury forewoman Elizabeth Ruppert said the jury reached the conclusion over two days of deliberation that "the light ... was a nuisance to a place that should be preserved."
Ruppert said she believed Royal Farms should have done more to keep its lights from shining onto the Bengies property. "I felt like Royal Farms did not uphold the standards as they should," she said.
Attorney Alan A. Abramowitz, representing Royal Farms, said his client was "shocked" by the decision. He contended that the jury was overly generous in its award of damages.
"What they awarded is the cost of a fence," he said, "a fence that protects Mr. Vogel's property but does so [beyond] anything that is the responsibility of Royal Farms."
The case, Abramowitz said, is far from over. "It is likely this case will be appealed," he said. In addition, "there are other motions that can be filed."
Fans of the Bengies praised the verdict — although some, like Vogel, feared what could happen on appeal.
"I'm very happy for him," said Diane Hain, a self-employed bookkeeper living in Mount Washington who said that a weekend rarely goes by where she doesn't go to the Bengies. "I do think its future is more secure now. But at the same time, I expect there will be appeals."
Added Jim Spath, a frequent Bengies customer who lives about three miles from the theater, "It's challenging to run the thing. I don't know that anybody could take over from [Vogel], run it with the same kind of passion."
In his closing remarks Thursday, McCurdy had stressed the pervasiveness of the light from the Royal Farms, arguing that it clearly interferes with Vogel's successful operation of the Bengies. "The lights are anywhere from 10 to 100 times brighter than the image on the screen," McCurdy told the jury.
Addressing Royal Farms' contention that it should not have to pay for an 800-foot fence when the store fronts only about 70 feet of the Bengies' property, McCurdy said the drive-in needs a large, state-of-the-art fence to protect it from lights.
"It's the last drive-in in Maryland," he said. "If it gets a fence, it deserves this fence."
He also repeated his contention that Baltimore County officials had been lax in enforcing their own zoning decisions. If they had done so from the beginning, he argued, the case never would have come to court.
"We're just trying to get back to where we were before all this started," McCurdy said.
Abramowitz, representing Royal Farms, used his closing remarks to present Vogel as a chronic complainer who simply refused to be satisfied. "From 2008 on," he said of Vogel, "he started making complaints, before the store opened."
Abramowitz suggested that another screen, if added, could be placed elsewhere on the property, away from the offending lights. And he pointed to the drive-in's continuing popularity as proof that customers do not find the lights intrusive.
"Every weekend night, from May to November, Mr. Vogel has operated his theater without a single ordinary person complaining" about the lights, Abramowitz said to the jury.
The lighting dispute goes back to at least 2003, when county Zoning Hearing Officer Lawrence E. Schmidt granted a special exception allowing construction on the site where the Royal Farms now stands. In his ruling, however, Schmidt said that buffers and light controls would need to be installed, perhaps more than the county code requires, because of the site's location across Eastern Boulevard from the drive-in.
Six years later, a new zoning hearing officer allowed Royal Farms to install additional signs on the property and took issue with Vogel's claims that the store's lights interfered with his business. County zoning officials have consistently said that the store is in compliance with department regulations.
In January 2010, Vogel took the county to court. The lights, he argued, violated the 2003 special-exception ruling and thus the county should force Royal Farms to remove them. The judge, though sympathetic to Vogel's argument, said she had no authority to force the county's hand.