A Baltimore County jury awarded the owner of Bengies Drive-in Theatre in Middle River $838,000 in damages Friday after finding that a nearby convenience store had polluted the large outdoor screening area off Eastern Boulevard nightly with beams of light.
The trial in the civil case opened Monday in Baltimore County Circuit Court before Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr. Jurors began deliberating on Thursday afternoon and reached a verdict after reconvening for a couple hours Friday.
Bengie’s owner D. Edward Vogel has been fighting against the problem of outdoor lights interfering with his movies for years, including unsuccessful challenges to the county’s zoning code that began in 2003.
In this lawsuit, he claimed that a nearby Royal Farms store that opened in December 2008 had consistently interfered with his patrons’ views of the screen with lights. He was seeking nearly $1 million to place a huge barrier between his theater and the store and damages for lost income because he said his plans to add a second outdoor screen were nixed because of the light.
The award will allow him to erect a 25-foot barrier fence that will stretch 850 feet around the drive-in’s perimeter to block the light, said T. Wray McCurdy, Vogel’s attorney.
“Tonight, I am going to dedicate the first show, ‘Brave,’ to T. Wray McCurdy and his assistant, and the second show, ‘The Avengers,’ to the jurors,” Vogel said, after the verdict Friday. “I am elated. Six people sat there and decided I was not crazy, that this was real.”
McCurdy said the jurors found in favor of Vogel and Bengies out of support for the drive-in theater.
“These things are going away,” McCurdy said. “As long as the verdict stands, it gives him a way to keep going forward.”
McCurdy called officials of the nearest drive-in theater — in Vineland, N.J.— to testify about the future of such outdoor entertainment venues .
He said Vogel plans to add a second screen at Bengies as soon as the compensation from the verdict is received.
Alan A. Abramowitz, an attorney for Two Farms Inc., owner of the Middle River Royal Farms store, described the verdict as stunning.
“We are shocked by the decision,” Abramowitz said. “This case was never about Bengies continuing to exist. Their profits and attendance have increased every year since the store was opened. The questions presented were, are the RF store’s lights unreasonable to the average person for a reasonable use and if so, was damage done?”
Abramowitz said Two Farms Inc. would consider filing an appeal.
“We will be availing ourselves of all post-verdict options,” he said. “And we remain willing to work with Mr. Vogel to limit night-time light from the Royal Farms store.”
Bengies opened at 3417 Eastern Blvd. on June 6, 1956, and today is a local landmark. It is the last remaining drive-in theater in Maryland.