$1.4M legal fee dispute sheds light on nasty family feud in lead up to blueberry crop destruction

It was an extraordinary decision by a B.C. Supreme Court judge, handed down on Friday — two brothers who were forced to sell their foreclosed 60-acre blueberry farm in Langley, B.C., were found to have maliciously destroyed the ripened, ready-to-pick crop by spraying herbicide on the plants days before the sale completed.

The judge wrote in his decision that "the only apparent motive was vindictive."

The couple who bought the farm was awarded about $2.8 million to reduce the $5.5 million paid for the property in 2017, along with $150,000 in punitive damages against the brothers.

Now, in a separate case, one of the brothers and his wife have been dealt a second blow by the court. They lost an appeal of a decision by B.C. Supreme Court Master Robert McDiarmid, in which he found them to be on the hook for $1.4 million in unpaid legal fees resulting from years of disputes between the three Grewal brothers.

'Reminiscent of the Thirty Years War'

That decision, which was also handed down on Friday and posted online this week, sheds light on the messy — and expensive — feud between the Grewals.

"The entrenched nature of the dispute, in combination with a pattern of switching loyalties between the brothers led Master McDiarmid to describe the litigation history as 'reminiscent of the Thirty Years War,'" wrote Justice Karen Horsman in her decision.

In the case against the new owners of the Langley blueberry farm, Zora Grewal, who cannot read or write in any language and can only speak basic English phrases, was not represented by a lawyer — but that wasn't the case for a series of legal actions against his brothers going back more than a decade.

A tangle of acrimonious partnerships

According to Horsman's decision, Zora's family lived in the same house for years as his brother Harbans Grewal's family. There was a lawsuit over the property.

Harbans started an electrical business and Zora worked with him there. There was legal action over the business.

Then there was the blueberry farm, in which Zora, Harbans, and the third brother, Harminder Grewal, bought equal shares in 2003 for $1.5 million. It's the same farm that would later be destroyed by herbicide, but first, the brothers would engage in fierce legal wrangling over the property, beginning two years after it was purchased.

Rafferty Baker/CBC

Horsman writes in her decision that Harminder was mainly responsible for farm operations. Zora and Harbans were soon aligned against him. 

That shifted after Harminder sought a court order to sell the farm in 2006. In the summer of 2007, Zora switched allegiances, wrote Horsman, and sided with Harminder. The next year, the two managed to buy the farm for $5.4 million when the court ordered its sale.

The sale got Harbans out of the picture, but then a dispute over the joint ownership agreement between Zora and Harminder continued in the courts.

Hefty legal fees

For much of the legal action, Zora and his wife Harinderpal Grewal were represented by the firm, Jenkins Marzban Logan LLP, which delivered bills totalling more than $1.5 million in July 2017 — the same month that, according to the decision in the case of the destroyed blueberries, Zora and Harminder sprayed the fields with herbicide.

In that decision, the judge wrote that Harminder had tried to persuade the buyers to walk away from the farm sale, as there was a dispute between the Grewal brothers, and they should not get involved.

"He said it is bad to get involved in somebody else's dispute," read the decision. "If this was not a threat, it was at the least a warning."

Nine days later, the farm was sold, but its fruit was almost entirely destroyed in a chemical attack from which the farm will take a decade to recover, according to the decision.

Zora and Harinderpal Grewal did manage to get the years worth of legal fees slightly reduced, but their appeal of the $1,447,194.05 fee has been dismissed.

It's not clear from the legal fee decision where the alliances between the Grewal brothers now lie, but in the case of the blueberry lawsuit, the judge concluded that Zora and Harminder had likely worked together to destroy the crop two years ago.

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