An Alabama jury has awarded $7.5 million to an Iranian-born car dealer who was slandered by a rival as “Taliban Toyota.”
The settlement is actually significantly less than the $28 million sought by Shawn Esfahani, owner of Eastern Shore Toyota, in Daphne, Alabama. But the naturalized citizen, who fled his native country following the Islamic revolution in 1980 said the more important victory is to take action against tactics he called “un-American.”
The case centered around comments made by a manager at Bob Tyler Toyota, another dealership just over the state line in Pensacola, Florida. According to the lawsuit Esfahani was described as Iraqi – not Iranian – and accused of sending money to Middle East terrorists.
The Florida dealership’s manager, Fred Kenner, reportedly told at least one customer that 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,” a reference to the fact that Kenner’s brother was in the military on assignment in the Mideast.
The claims were ironic in that Esfahani came to America following the Islamic takeover of Iran and the breakdown in diplomatic relations that followed the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. He later became a citizen and opened his Toyota store in 2007.
The jury took just three hours to decide the case, awarding Esfahani $2.5 million in compensatory damages and another $5 million in punitive damages.
The lawyer for Bob Tyler Toyota has not yet said whether he will appeal the verdict.
As for Esfahani, he told the Reuters news service that, “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,” adding that he hopes the verdict will send a message to “any other business that resorts to those kinds of actions to win at their game unfairly.”