How much would you pay to have a meal with one of the world’s most famous celebrities? Would you pay $2,500, the cost of mingling in the general vicinity of President Obama at a fundraising reception? Would you pay $17,600, the cost of a ticket to the actual fundraising dinner with the president?
Now it’s true that Sylvester Stallone (“Sly,” as his BFFs call him) isn’t the president. He’s not even a governor. Then again, that might be the reason you’d actually pay more. But would you lay out a cool $4.9 million like I would end up doing, and afterwards do a 180-degree change in careers away from that very business to become a therapist, of all things? That would have to be one strange dinner, wouldn’t it? Let me explain.
Back in 2004 I was a successful marketing executive with nearly two decades of experience in the health food industry working for a number of top manufacturers. I was married to a fitness model. We lived in a spacious house surrounded by a white picket fence overlooking a valley. True to the industry in which I worked, I had the muscular body of a bodybuilder. I was convinced I possessed everything I could ever want. Ironically for someone in the health industry, I also was a habitual substance abuser.
Tired of helping make others wealthy, I gathered a few like-minded peers and formed a company we lovingly called Freedom Foods. The word “freedom” was especially endearing to us, since this was our choice, our dream—the American dream. It would soon become the American nightmare.
We put everything we had into developing our first product, an altogether unique type of healthy snack food. As luck would have it (incredibly bad luck, looking back on it), our first sales account was a whopper. It was the kind of account you call your parents about even though they’re home in bed in Florida and it’s the middle of the night and they assume any call after 8 p.m. is coming from a hospital, but you just had to. This was big.
The account was a company named Instone Nutrition, which we soon discovered was owned by Sylvester Stallone. Next thing you know I’m meeting with Sly for dinner. I’m not one who is easily impressed, but I admit the experience was magical. Though Sly covered the tab, I soon would learn how much that dinner really cost me.
Turns out the rich and famous are powerful magnets for lawsuits. I learned there’s an entire cottage industry chock full of law firms that work on a contingency basis hunting for any opportunity to bite into a wealthy celebrity.
What enables this system to operate unimpeded is something chemical dependency counselors deal with every day: delusional thinking. In the case of a trial by jury, it is the litigator’s job to construct the best version of events, not necessarily the true version. Their version is usually emotionally charged and makes sense on the surface, and jurors will believe it with absolute certainty. Because of this, many celebrities opt to settle out of court so as not to jeopardize their reputations or risk the full jury award.
Sure enough, just as Sly starts popping up on “The Tonight Show” promoting our product, a lawsuit emerges and hijacks the next four years of my life. The lawsuit was initiated by a former employee of mine who claimed the product we developed was partly his idea, and therefore Freedom Foods—and by extension our client Instone Nutrition—was guilty of theft.
Driven by massive resentments (“How dare they; I’ll teach them!”) and pride (“I’ll win because I’m right”), I allowed the lawsuit to become all-consuming. The business suffered irreparably as I rechanneled my time and emotion to attorney meetings and poring over old files. I became distant from everyone who cared—hostile even. I coped by isolating, drinking, and abusing cocaine, methamphetamine, and a host of other drugs. Obvious to everyone but me, I became as addicted to the lawsuit as I was to the chemicals. Rapidly I went into deep debt, exhausting every asset of the business and my marriage.
Two years into the litigation, the business no longer could afford inventory. My primary job then became evading bill collectors, using, and waiting for the mail each day to see what new litigious horror was being thrown at us, as the dream born during my dinner with Sylvester Stallone was obliterated, Still, the worst was to come.
The more I risked and the more delusional I became, the more drugs I did. I was spending more than $100 a day, seven days a week, on cocaine and painkillers, and was the kind of alcoholic who would drink mouthwash when the booze ran out. I was seeing things, hearing things, and walking around the house in three-day-old sweaty night clothes with a fireplace poker, searching for the tree police. I overdosed on three separate occasions, each time requiring a defibrillator to restart my heart. Yet I couldn’t stop. No one was able to get through to me—not my wife, my family, my friends, my therapist or our pastor.
Finally in 2008 we went to court. The trial took just five days. Four years of wrangling and suffering was over in just 40 hours. The verdict: guilty. We presented a mountain of evidence, we called to the stand renowned food scientists, and we introduced testimony from a top Washington, D.C. law firm specializing in patent law. The arbitration judge we met with prior to the case had said there were no grounds for the lawsuit.