Business

‘David vs. Goliath’

A Montrealer wins a suit against a corporate giant

Brenda Branswell December 20 1999
Business

‘David vs. Goliath’

A Montrealer wins a suit against a corporate giant

Brenda Branswell December 20 1999

‘David vs. Goliath’

Business

A Montrealer wins a suit against a corporate giant

Brenda Branswell

As André Lizotte greets a rare visitor to his downtown Montreal home, he is impeccably dressed in a black blazer and pale slacks. But when he warns that his tiny, one-room apartment is a mess, he isn’t exaggerating. His mattress lies on the floor beside a cardboard box that serves as a night table. The only clear space is a narrow path leading to a cluttered desk. Everything else is a jungle of boxes, legal files and newspapers—all reminders of his incredibly gruelling, but ultimately successful seven-year legal batde against RBC Dominion Securities Inc. for breach of contract. Last week, the 53-year-old Lizotte received his third and final payment from RBCDS in an award totalling $3 million. “Over the last three weeks or so,” the once successful businessman says, laugh-

ing, “I’ve had the greatest social life I’ve had in the last eight years.”

Such are the spoils of what Lizotte’s Web site calls his “David vs. Goliath” victory over a corporate giant. After all, Dominion Securities is one of Canada’s leading brokerage firms and a subsidiary of the largest bank, the Royal Bank of Canada. Lizotte was just a small entrepreneur in 1992 when the brokerage did not continue an immigrant investor program that he had helped set up—and his subsequent legal battle reduced him to living briefly in a car. Quebec Superior Court judge Nicole Morneau clearly saw the fight as uneven. In her Nov. 11 ruling, she accused RBC-DS of treating Lizotte with contempt and of using stalling tactics. “The court sees in this the deliberate intent to wear out, if not exhaust, the plaintiff in an attempt to escape its responsibili-

ties,” she wrote. In an unusual step, the justice ordered RBC-DS to pay Lizotte $1 million immediately, regardless of whether they planned to appeal.

The brokerage did not appeal, ultimately paying Lizotte the $3 million in lost incomes, other damages and interest. Jean-Pierre De Montigny, managing director at RBC-DS, told Macleans that one problem contributing to delays in the case was the fact that most of the people involved no longer worked for the firm. “We’re not happy that it took so long, which is also one of the reasons I we’re not appealing,” he added. Still, he s objects to the firm being portrayed as a I ruthless giant. “I don’t know who is the I David and who is the Goliath here,” I says De Montigny. “I mean, he showed I up with 35 boxes of documents at the I court and he has a beautiful Web site. So, he’s well organized.”

De Montigny also argues that RBCDS offered to settle several times, but Lizotte refused. He had, in fact, sought $5.2 million plus interest. And he lost a parallel libel suit and had to pay RBCDS $25,000 for defamatory remarks he wrote in a 1993 letter to more than 75 securities regulators and other groups about the dispute. Still, Lizotte is enjoying a sense of sweet vindication with his victory over RBC-DS: “They just didn’t know who they were bumping into.” Lizotte turned out to be a tenacious opponent. A national vice-president of the Liberal Party of Canada from 1984 to 1990, Lizotte reached an oral agreement in April 1990 with the Montreal brokerage firm McNeil Mantha Inc. to set up an immigrant investor program to lure Asian capital to Quebec companies. They struck a five-year deal, which was eventually put in writing in September, 1991. But 12 days later, RBCDS announced plans to acquire McNeil Mantha—a move that left Lizotte in limbo. He pressed RBC-DS about its intentions, but the firm took until February 1992 to announce it would not continue the program. (Those delays, noted Morneau, caused Lizotte to lose

credibility.) After trying to negotiate a buyout with RBC-DS, he filed his lawsuit in December that year.

His life had already begun to unravel. In the fall of 1991, with the investor program up in the air and no revenue coming in, bailiffs started showing up at his home in the tony Town of Mount Royal. Soon after, he and his wife separated. “When I started this lawsuit I was already broke,” says Lizotte, who says he had no choice but to work full time on the case to avoid even higher legal fees. In 1993, he ended up living out of his leased Saab for two weeks before relinquishing it because of unpaid bills. Lizotte then spent a few nights at a homeless shelter, not far from the soup kitchen where he and wife used to serve food. Finally, his sister, Denyse Lizotte, provided him with a small apartment, and other affluent friends lent him money for his legal efforts. “Accepting charity was very difficult,” he says, his eyes welling with tears. “I didn’t even have suitable clothing to go to the trial. It was my 77-year-old mother who clothed me.”

Embarrassed by his money woes, Lizotte withdrew from friends. Camille Villeneuve was one of the few who saw Lizottes reaction. “He had a lot of fatigue, worry and stress,” says the Hull, Que., businessman who lent his longtime friend hundreds of thousands of dollars. Adds Lizottes lawyer Richard Mongeau: “He actually worked—I’m not exaggerating—seven days a week for six and a half years.” Was it worth it? “The jury is still out,” Lizotte says. “I’m happy it’s resolved. At last I can turn the page.” He is in talks with a filmmaker about turning his story into a TV mini-series, and plans to resume a career in business. He booked a Caribbean holiday for this week and reserved a room at Montreal’s exclusive Saint James’s Club for a victory bash in January. But he says his first task is to pay his $1.3 million in debts. He must also cope with his new reality. “After you’ve stopped living and only existed for the last eight years,” says Lizotte, “that will probably be the most difficult adjustment.” E3