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01/15/91 C.S. SASTRY v. JOHN P. COALE

January 15, 1991


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Ronald P. Wertheim, Trial Judge

Steadman and Farrell, Associate Judges, and Kern, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell

This litigation arose from an unsuccessful attempt to develop legal business in Bhopal, India among the victims of the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in 1984. C.S. Sastry, appellant, rendered services in support of the efforts of attorney John P. Coale, appellee, to locate potential clients in Bhopal. Sastry claims that Coale failed to pay full compensation for 800 hours of work. At the end of Sastry's case-in-chief, the trial Judge granted Coale's motion for a directed verdict, concluding that because Sastry had presented inconsistent evidence about the terms of the compensation agreement and insufficient evidence of the value of his services, a valid jury verdict in his favor was impossible.

After reviewing the evidence presented in the light most favorable to appellant, we conclude that he established a prima facie case of breach of contract: he demonstrated the existence of an express or implied-in-fact contract for services which was fully performed, and he established a "reasonable basis on which to estimate damages." Romer v. District of Columbia, 449 A.2d 1097, 1100 (D.C. 1982) (citations omitted). Therefore, We vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings.


Sastry, a self-employed men's clothing salesman, testified that he was familiar with the country of India and the city of Bhopal. Before becoming a salesman, he had worked in the international division of a corporation where he was a product marketing manager. In that job he traveled extensively in India and established both business and political contacts in Bhopal. He is fluent in Hindi, the dominant language spoken in Bhopal. Some of his family members live in India and he has property located there. He also knows employees of the embassy of India.

In December 1984, Coale heard about the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Having been a customer of Sastry's for a number of years, he arranged a meeting with him to discuss forming a "team" to develop legal business in Bhopal in the wake of the disaster. Sastry agreed to meet the next day in Coale's office. He, Coale, and two other individuals attended the meeting, at which Coale expressed enthusiasm about the venture and Sastry shared the "excitement." According to Sastry, Coale proposed paying him one third of his earnings from legal business in Bhopal for his services. *fn1 Coale and the other two participants decided to leave for Bhopal immediately, and asked Sastry to join them. Sastry agreed to do so for a fee of $3,000. At the time of the initial meeting, he did not know how much he would eventually be paid, but he agreed "to provide the help and service." Coale paid Sastry $3,000 and the group flew to India in December.

Sastry spent six days in Bhopal working for Coale. *fn2 His duties included making travel arrangements to and from India; contacting Bhopal city officials on behalf of Coale to arrange meetings with disaster victims; reviewing the Hindi translation of Coale's form retainer agreement for victims and coordinating the printing of the form agreements; and collecting, tabulating, and classifying retainer agreements executed by victims.

At the end of January 1985, *fn3 Sastry decided to go to India on personal business for the month of February. When he told Coale of his plan, Coale replied, "As long as you are going to be in India I want you . . . to re-establish my position [in Bhopal] with the mayor and with the other people that we had established contact with." Regarding compensation, Sastry "kept reminding" Coale that the Bhopal work was "taking time away from my business" and "jeopardizing my income." Coale assured Sastry that the work would be "very well compensated." Sastry went to India in February and spent five days in Bhopal working for Coale. *fn4 His duties included collecting executed retainer agreements and supervising the "field work" in Bhopal.

Sastry's last trip to India on Coale's behalf took place in July 1985. *fn5 In early July Coale asked him to return to Bhopal as his "personal emissary" to "refine the agreement" and "collect the documents" pertinent to certain cases. In July Coale paid Sastry $4,000 for services but, according to Sastry, most of that cash "flowed through" him to cover expenses. Once in Bhopal, Sastry hand-carried a letter from Coale to a Bhopal official; insured the payment of the Bhopal staff workers by using his own property as collateral for a loan; obtained signatures for a movie release agreement; and obtained death certificates. *fn6 Finally, from August through November 1985, Sastry continued working at his home and in Coale's office on tasks related to the Bhopal litigation. *fn7 His employment relationship with Coale ended in January 1986.

In his testimony, Sastry acknowledged that he received $5,000 in payments for services from Coale, *fn8 but claimed that this sum failed to compensate him for the total of 800 hours he spent on the Bhopal project from December 1984 through November 1985. On cross-examination, Sastry was pressed closely as to the compensation term of his agreement with Coale -- specifically whether any payment for services other than the amounts he had received was contingent on a successful outcome. In the complaint he had asserted as fact that, at the original December meeting, Coale "offered to 'split' his earnings or at least give 30 percent" and that "plaintiff accepted and then agreed to go with [Coale and his associates]." On direct examination, Sastry at first denied that it "was . . . the idea at all" that he was to be paid strictly out of Coale's earnings in the litigation; he stated that their Discussions about compensation essentially consisted of Sastry asking for (and receiving) $3,000 to cover the expected five days in India, *fn9 and that thereafter he kept reminding Coale that tee absence from his clothing business was jeopardizing his income. On cross-examination, however, Sastry conceded that Coale had "mentioned" at the initial meeting an offer to give Sastry "up to 30 percent" of any recovery. His testimony continued as follows:

Q. And then the last sentence in paragraph seven [of the complaint] says: "Plaintiff accepted and then agreed to go With them." Is that correct?

A. All right.

Q. You ...

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