A Superior Court judge has overturned a jury verdict last year that awarded $1.1 million to an Aroostook County couple who claimed that their attorney, Daniel Lilley, failed to properly represent them in their long legal fight against Agway Inc., causing them to lose their potato seed farm.

Justice Thomas Warren’s ruling, issued June 13, strips Vaughn and Mary Sleeper of a significant victory in a case that pitted the Island Falls farmers against one of Maine’s most prominent attorneys, whose success and outspoken style as a criminal defense attorney have distinguished him.

Warren, who presided over the trial last December in Cumberland County Superior Court, said in his ruling that, because of a number of errors he made before and during the trial, he was granting a motion by Lilley for a new trial.

“The court recognizes that there is no such thing as a perfect trial. However, this trial fell too far short,” Warren wrote in his 17-page order. “The Lilley defendants have demonstrated that prejudicial error occurred at the trial. As a result, the court is constrained to find that, through no fault of the jury, there was a failure of substantial justice necessitating a new trial.”

The case centered on legal work Lilley’s firm did for the Sleepers and their business, Sleeper Hill Farms, starting in 2001, against Agway Inc., a New York-based conglomerate that the Sleepers claim withheld money from them.

The Sleepers sued Lilley in 2011, accusing his law firm of failing to represent them properly after Agway filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002, and through the years of federal court and arbitration proceedings that followed. The Sleepers claimed the firm failed to adequately conduct discovery, including deposing key witnesses and obtaining key evidence, failed to convey settlement offers and failed to keep the clients apprised of the case status.

Warren said in his ruling that there is a “significant question” that evidence presented at trial supported the Sleepers’ claim that malpractice by Lilley’s firm caused them to lose their farm.

The judge said he made “problematic rulings” because he felt rushed to try to conclude the trial before Christmas week. He said he erred in ruling to exclude the transcript of a phone conversation that would have helped Lilley’s case. He also said he should have ruled to exclude expert testimony that the Sleepers have claim to more than $1 million in damages, when they were only able to offer proof of $30,000 in damages from lost Agway money.

“There was little or no evidence as to why the $30,000 loss resulted in the need to begin liquidating the farm property, and there was evidence to the contrary – that the Sleepers could have obtained additional credit but Vaughn Sleeper decided he did not want to continue farming,” Warren wrote.

Lilley said he was pleased with the judge’s ruling and is optimistic that the Sleepers’ case against him will fall apart.

He said his law firm never abandoned the Sleepers, but won them a $128,000 award in their claim against Agway.

“I think this sort of destroys their case. I would think that settlement or dismissal might be in the works,” Lilley said of Warren’s ruling.

Lilley, who was first admitted to the Maine bar in 1967, gained notoriety most recently in 2012 and 2013 in what was known widely as the Zumba prostitution case. He defended Mark Strong Sr., the Thomaston businessman who was implicated in the prostitution business that was run from a Zumba studio in Kennebunk.

Strong and Alexis Wright, a former fitness instructor, were convicted last year on misdemeanor charges in the case, which drew international headlines.

The Sleepers’ attorney, Lee Bals, said that his clients may appeal Warren’s ruling to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court but that it may have to go to a second trial before that happens.

“He is saying he made some mistaken rulings. But I will tell you, we think it is an unfortunate state of affairs when a judge is second-guessing a jury,” Bals said. “We are confident that if there is a retrial that the results will be the same, that Mr. Lilley and his law firm will be found negligent. I can assure you that the Sleepers will persevere as they have all these years and that eventually justice will be done.”

Bals said he expects to request a conference with the judge to ask him what happens next in the case.

Scott Dolan can be reached at 791-6304 or at:

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Twitter: @scottddolan