Judging by the slow pace in which our judicial system trudges along (especially with COVID-19 leaving courts backlogged with more cases than ever before), one has to wonder why Kathryn Zimmie, at the ripe age of 85, has filed so venomous a lawsuit against her ex, Beanie Baby billionaire Ty Warner of Montecito.
This conflict first surfaced last March when Mr. Warner and his lawyers obviously thought the best defense was a good offense and filed a preemptive lawsuit (in Chicago, his preferred jurisdiction, presumably after having received a demand letter from Ms. Zimmie’s lawyer), seeking to bar her from staking a claim due to “an implied or oral agreement” that he would take care of her financially. At that time, Ms. Zimmie was apparently seeking a $70 million settlement.
Clearly, there was no resolution. Earlier this month, two days before Mr. Warner’s 77th birthday, Ms. Zimmie’s gift to him was her own lawsuit in Santa Barbara County Superior Court demanding $200 million (said to be half the value of Mr. Warner’s 18,967 square-foot, 6.58-acre oceanfront digs in Montecito), the return of her artwork and other personal possessions plus punitive damages for emotional distress.
Cases like this can go on for years and years. And it will be to Mr. Warner’s advantage, in this case especially, to stretch the proceedings out as long as possible.
Which means, this may be bleaker for Ms. Zimmie than Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House,” a novel symbolic of endless litigation.
Unless, of course, resolution and payment are not the true motivation for this lawsuit, but, instead, it is about humiliating Mr. Warner in revenge for beating her to the punch and not settling with her. (That would be, in addition, of course, to the suffering she claims she had to endure — for how many years? Quite a few as their relationship apparently goes all the way back to 1977.)
My point is how can Ms. Zimmie expect her ex-partner to now fork out millions in settlement after she laced her lawsuit, for all to see (and court-protected from libel charges), with the following allegations?
— She said she fled Mr. Warner’s Montecito manse without her clothes and personal possessions “out of fear for her well-being and safety.”
— She said Mr. Warner, upon being told by Ms. Zimmie that she was leaving, allegedly placed his hands around her neck and told her “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” States the suit: “Warner squeezed Zimmie’s throat so hard that she realized that her life was in danger if she ever left him.” That’s her allegation.
— That she was allegedly under constant surveillance in Mr. Warner’s homestead.
— That he allegedly berated her and hid the cane she needed to get around on foot.
— That he allegedly committed fraud, allegedly using her identity without her knowledge to conceal assets in a shell company. The suit cites 50 alleged wire transfers in 2019 and 2020 to Cleveland Design Consultants, LLC, which she and lawyers called “a pattern of deceit.”
Given Mr. Warner’s 2013 guilty plea for tax evasion and resulting fine plus community service, the last item is clearly calculated to invite renewed IRS attention.
Meantime, Mr. Warner is battling legal disputes on two other fronts, one pertaining to alleged noise emanating from an unpermitted redevelopment at his Montecito country club, an action initiated by one Angelo Mozilo, former CEO of Countywide Financial and partly responsible for our whole countrywide 2008 financial collapse. (He pled guilty to securities fraud and insider trading and was fined $67.5 million.) In other words, Mr. Mozilo is no saint himself.
The other legal challenge for Mr. Warner is a labor dispute involving 300-plus employees furloughed last year from his Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara, due to COVID-19 closures. The Montecito hotel’s employees are represented by a contingency lawyer who knows Santa Barbara’s Labor Commission. And courts always side with labor, whatever the facts.
And there’s this. As with the Biltmore and its neighboring Coral Casino Beach & Cabana Club, Mr. Warner’s Four Seasons Hotel New York has been closed since COVID lockdowns began in March 2020.
According to fourseasons.com/newyork, the hotel remains closed “due to substantial infrastructure and maintenance work that is expected to last well in 2022.” This is similar to what local folks have been told about the Biltmore, though no maintenance appears to be taking place.
As reported earlier in this column, what we know is this: Mr. Warner will reopen neither his New York City nor Montecito hotels until he is able to sever ties with Four Seasons Hotels (perhaps leading to even more acrimony). The management contract between Mr. Warner and Four Seasons is believed to expire in mid-2022, which ties into Mr. Warner’s New York City timeline.
Despite these closures, Mr. Warner’s fortune — estimated at $4.3 billion — doubled during COVID (according to Forbes magazine). One might therefore conjecture that Mr. Warner makes more money when his properties are closed than when they’re open (especially with real estate prices soaring).
Is this billionaire truly a magnet for legal trouble — or is this the price people pay for being very wealthy in our ultra-litigious, Bar Association-dominated culture?
It seems awfully sad to me that Mr. Warner, who revitalized the public Butterfly Beach promenade at his own expense and upgraded the Coral Casino (no thanks to members who thought they owned the place and tried to stop him) along with spending $119 million to remodel the Montecito Club … It seems awfully sad that he must spend his august years surrounded by multiple lawyers of varying specialties, his own and others’, the latter with teeth bared and claws extended — and with seemingly no end to bad publicity from all directions.
And just so you know I’m not fawning over Mr. Warner, I have a bone to pick with his Stonehouse Restaurant at San Ysidro Ranch: The prices remain sky high, but the food in no way equates. In fact, dining there for a recent birthday celebration, I saw that the meals served were far from spectacular and at best mediocre. Maybe the chef was on vacation?
And we all must endure Mr. Warner’s personal taste, which, as we’ve seen, first at the Biltmore and now with his Montecito Club remodel, is best described as Turkish bazaar-meets-Moroccan brothel. And then, in contrast, at the latter, a drab dining room designed retro-1960s from the TV series “Mad Men”: very gray, very drab. Ugh.
Even if Mr. Warner had better taste — or based his designs on local creativity (perhaps Chumash), not foreign heritage — one wonders what will happen to all of his holdings when he passes without heirs, and everything falls into the hands of faceless executors at a foundation or trust for whom the bottom line (as in profits) will be all that matters.
Mr. Warner may have idiosyncrasies and his own taste (however odd), but he is big on aesthetics generally and seems to have the community’s best interests at heart (if focused only on the very rich). On the other hand, heartless financial folks in another state may be much less inclined to perpetuate Mr. Warner’s habit of spending without concern for near-term return.
And that will be a sad day for Montecito.
Robert Eringer welcomes comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.