Suzanne's Kitchen lawsuit dismissed

Judge dismisses lawsuit filed against actress Suzanne Somers

Celebrity not faulted for failed Lexington business venture

jhewlett@herald-leader.comJanuary 27, 2011 

Actress Suzanne Somers walked away from Fayette Circuit Court a happy woman Wednesday after a judge decided there was a lack of evidence in a civil case against her over a failed do-it-yourself meal-preparation business that bore her name.

Judge James Ishmael entered a directed verdict in the case against Somers and SLC Food Inc. on Wednesday afternoon because there was not enough proof to ask the jury to consider a verdict, he said. SLC Food Inc. handles the licensing of Somers' name and likeness on food products.

The trial lasted three days.

"It's great to be vindicated," Somers said afterward. "I knew I had done nothing wrong."

Somers said that she was pleased with the outcome and that she thought the judge was fair and thoughtful.

As for herself, she said, "It was a long time to sit." Somers said she hopes that the next time she comes to Lexington, it will be under better circumstances.

Somers thanked the jurors as they filed past the defense table after the court proceedings. Before leaving the courthouse, she stopped in the clerk's office and had her picture taken with a group of courthouse employees.

Somers, 64, was the target of a lawsuit filed by Louisville businessman and attorney John Shannon Bouchillon. He sought to recover $400,000 he said he invested in the failed Suzanne's Kitchen, which had a flagship store in Lexington from late 2006 to early 2007. He said he was not told the truth before or after he invested.

Somers' name and likeness were used to brand the business; former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. ran the company. Brown was one of the defendants in the suit, but he was dismissed as a party in the case last week at Bouchillon's request.

"We're obviously very disappointed, and we disagree with the court's decision," said Bouchillon's attorney, Craig Robertson. Robertson said he would talk to his client and then decide what they will do next.

Earlier Wednesday, Somers took the stand to defend herself. She also took up for her husband, who on Tuesday was on the receiving end of some critical comments by Brown.

Somers said Brown is not quite who she thought he was, but that he does know how to run a franchise.

Brown, she said, seems "thick," is "bumbling" and is not very well-groomed. She said a chief executive officer should not have dandruff, should wear clean clothes and should cut his hair. Somers also testified that it was true she had referred to Brown as a "con artist" in a deposition she gave before the case went to trial.

Somers said she had nothing to do with the business dealings involved in Suzanne's Kitchen. She said she just allowed her name and likeness to be used, promoted the business and helped develop recipes for the flagship store.

She said her husband, Alan Hamel, and Jim England, president of SLC Food, handled the business end of things.

Somers said she doesn't want to go to meetings, doesn't want to sit with lawyers and accountants and doesn't sign checks. She said she has no ownership in licensing companies for products she endorses, that she's the "out front" person.

"I know what I do well," said Somers, who's written 20 books — some of them best-sellers — makes public appearances and has promoted about 500 products. "If that makes me savvy, then I am," she said.

"I don't want to own my businesses; I'm the brand," she said.

She said she thought the $1 million that went into starting Suzanne's Kitchen was Brown's.

Brown received money from friends and former business associates to invest in the Suzanne's Kitchen venture, according to court testimony and evidence.

"I was never aware there were investors. I thought John Brown was rich," Somers said Wednesday. She and England testified they never had direct business dealings with Bouchillon or other investors.

Somers and SLC Food lost money in the venture, but the money went for lawyers and other expenses and was not invested in the project itself, Somers and England said.

"I feel terrible for Mr. Bouchillon. I feel terrible for all of us. We all lost money," Somers said.

Witnesses testified and evidence showed there was tension between Brown and Hamel for months before the Lexington store opened in December 2006.

On Tuesday, Brown said Hamel was "obnoxious and insulting" and an "emotional egomaniac" during a meeting he had with Hamel and Somers in July 2006.

Somers said Wednesday that when Hamel walked into the room, "Gov. Brown stood up and pointed a finger at him and said 'You've been a very bad boy' ... It was a terrible way to start a meeting." No one had talked to her husband like that, she said.

Somers said Brown kept saying that they could not have a chain of food stores that have only all-natural and organic food.

Brown said Tuesday that such food was expensive and there was no distribution system for it.

"He doesn't get the message that I'm trying to put out there," Somers said Wednesday. She said after she was diagnosed with cancer she felt she could manage her body by feeding it the right fuel and that it was important to her to continue with this "purity" in Suzanne's Kitchen. She said she was concerned about Brown using her name incorrectly.

But she said the two sides eventually came to an agreement that all-natural food, food that did not contain antibiotics or other chemicals, would be used at Suzanne's Kitchen.

Somers said her husband, whom she met when she was 19, defends and protects her and has made her feel good about herself.

"I used to be told I was worthless," she said, tears in her eyes.

"I spent the bulk of my childhood in fear," she said, recounting her growing up years with an alcoholic father. She said she and her siblings slept in a locked closet during those years.

"The violence was that intense, and it never let up," she said.

Somers received a college scholarship but got pregnant and had to leave school. She was forced to marry the father of her baby, she said.

"I was pretty much all alone with this baby," she said. But she managed.

She's lucky in life now, she said, because she's married to someone who spends 24 hours a day thinking about her.

At one point while Robertson was questioning Somers on the witness stand, she told him he was trying to trick her. Robertson said he was not. "Yes you are," Somers said. "You're just being a devious lawyer."

Somers said she was excited about Suzanne's Kitchen and felt it had the potential to become a big hit. The Lexington flagship store "looked like me; it felt like me," she said. "This was an expression of me ... I wanted it to be a smashing success."

She said the private jet that Brown sent to bring her and Hamel to Lexington for the store's grand opening was part of the deal. She said she thought the trip cost about $4,000, not $6,500, as Brown said. The cost was probably less than two first-class tickets on a commercial jet, she said.

Brown — not Somers and SLC Food — as Brown maintained, pulled the plug on Suzanne's Kitchen, according to Somers and England. Somers said Brown didn't give Suzanne's Kitchen enough time to catch on.

Somers asked why Brown was no longer a defendant in the case and said he should be.

"People who invested, invested with John Brown, and he hurt them," she said. "They got hurt because of John Brown, and I feel horrible about it."

Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.

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