Ever wondered what it would feel like to float and flip in space like an astronaut? Such otherworldly thrills are available to the public thanks to a company called Zero Gravity Corporation. Founded by former NASA astronaut Byron Lichtenberg and XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, Arlington, Va.-based Zero Gravity offers individuals the experience of weightlessness without going into space.
Using a specially modified Boeing 727, Zero Gravity’s pilots create weightless conditions by performing flight maneuvers called parabolic arcs. Customers run the gamut from corporate groups to companies testing equipment before it’s shipped off into space. ABC’s “The Bachelor” sent a couple on a Zero Gravity date, while model Kate Upton once floated through the “Zero G” plane for a Sports Illustrated photo shoot wearing a gold bikini.
But while Zero Gravity is in the business of wowing amateur astronauts, behind the scenes it has faced far less exhilarating challenges. For four years the company was embroiled in a white-knuckle legal battle with a former service provider, Fort Lauderdale, Fl.–based Amerijet International, which culminated in a two-day trial this past January.
In April, Judge Lynn N. Hughes of the Southern District of Texas ruled in Zero Gravity’s favor ordering Amerijet to pay the company $1,002,117.33 in damages. It could have turned out much differently. Had Amerijet prevailed in its claims against Zero Gravity, the small aviation company might have been grounded for good.
“This is a huge victory for Zero Gravity,” said Quentin Smith, a senior associate at V&E, which has represented the company since 2014. “It kept a great client and a great company in business.”
“We had never really been in a litigation before. All of a sudden we got pulled into this lawsuit that was filed vindictively, and things went from there.”
The V&E team, which was led by partner Pat Mizell and included Smith and Carly Milner, faced an aggressive adversary. Nonetheless, thanks to smart legal maneuvering, a mastery of the arcane world of aircraft maintenance, and a roster of well-prepared witnesses, V&E was able to achieve positive results for its client.
A relationship craters
Like many business relationships, Zero Gravity and Amerijet’s union started out smoothly, but ultimately hit turbulence.
When Zero Gravity launched, the company didn’t own an airplane, so it needed to contract with a third party. In 2004, Zero Gravity tapped Amerijet and the two parties went on to strike a series of agreements including a Management and Services Agreement (MSA), and an engine lease. Amerijet owned the engines on the Zero Gravity airplane and leased them to Zero Gravity.
The trouble started in 2012 and 2013, when several maintenance problems caused by Amerijet – including engines that failed mid-flight – temporarily grounded the aircraft. At the time Zero Gravity was providing research flights for NASA, and it had to cancel flights, resulting in lost revenue.
By 2014, tension was building and the once happy couple was heading to court. On April 4, 2014, Amerijet surprised Zero Gravity, informing the company that it was ending their MSA in 30 days. Ten days later, Amerijet filed a lawsuit in a state district court in Harris County, Texas – where the Zero Gravity plane was stationed for the NASA flights – and obtained a temporary restraining order allowing the company to immediately take its engines off the plane.
“We had never really been in a litigation before. All of a sudden we got pulled into this lawsuit that was filed vindictively, and things went from there,” said Zero Gravity CEO Terese Brewster.
V&E suits up for battle
Enter V&E. Mike Henke, the general counsel of Zero Gravity’s former parent company, Space Adventures, who had been a partner at V&E, hired the firm to dissolve the TRO. V&E prevailed.
But the TRO would be just the beginning of a series of legal moves Amerijet would take in what appeared to be a pattern aimed at damaging Zero Gravity’s reputation and its business.
By July of 2014, Zero Gravity had successfully removed the case to Federal Court in Texas. Apparently unhappy with Judge Hughes’ rulings, Amerijet filed another lawsuit in Federal Court in Florida. Judge Hughes enjoined the Florida lawsuit and Amerijet appealed. V&E’s Milner successfully argued the appeal and in 2015 the case remanded back to Judge Hughes’ court. Around the same time, V&E successfully transferred the Florida case to Judge Hughes in Houston where he consolidated the two cases.
Winning at trial
But the trouble continued for Zero Gravity. While Judge Hughes ordered Amerijet to hand over past maintenance records, Amerijet dragged its feet and for a period of 18 months, the company was unable to fly. Meanwhile the lawsuit was hanging over its head.
As Zero Gravity headed to trial in January of 2018, much was at stake. Amerijet claimed the space flight company had stolen its trade secrets relating to parabolic flights — even though Zero Gravity had compiled the manuals and maintenance program that were allegedly stolen. Zero Gravity countersued claiming Amerijet breached the MSA and failed to maintain the aircraft in compliance with certain standards.
Amerijet sought injunctive relief, and in the alternative, about $800,000 in damages. Either outcome could have been highly damaging for Zero Gravity. For the V&E team, swaying the judge required mastering the intricacies of aircraft maintenance, and then driving home their points clearly.
“Pat was able to show ‘Hey, look, we’re not talking about one-offs here and there, we’re talking about consistent issues with them maintaining the aircraft, which was their contractual obligation under the MSA,’” Brewster said.
A “My Cousin Vinny” moment
Likewise, the V&E team’s hard work prepping its witnesses paid off.
One in particular stood out. Dressed in a brown leather blazer, Scott Stambaugh, director of maintenance at Stambaugh Aviation, which provides maintenance services to Zero Gravity, didn’t look like a sophisticated aviation expert. In fact, Mizell had some fun with him on the stand.
“Pat said, ‘You know, I just have to say, when I asked you to put something on nice, I wasn’t expecting you to wear your brown leather jacket,’” Smith said.
But Stambaugh’s looks were deceiving, something Amerijet’s lawyer learned when cross-examining him. Much like the Marisa Tomei character in the movie “My Cousin Vinny,” Stambaugh was the underestimated witness who turned out to be a highly knowledgeable expert.
“Marty tried to discredit him, and Scott came back with a vengeance,” Brewster said.
Achieving a smooth landing
In the end, Zero Gravity prevailed on all of its breach of contract claims, while Amerijet lost its trade secret claim. After a long and bumpy ride, V&E was able to steer Zero Gravity to a smooth landing.
“A lot of bad blood had gone back and forth between the parties,” Smith said. “Ultimately, after four years of litigation, we were able to come to a resolution and we were able to get some money for our client.”