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WHAT’S LEFT AFTER UTAHN `WINS’ SUIT?

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When Caroline Beck found out she had only weeks to live, she told her husband there was one bright spot: She wouldn't have to think about their court case any more.

The couple's lawsuit against the office-furniture giant that they believe drove them out of business consumed Jim and Caroline Beck. They knew suing Haworth Inc. - the supplier that provided most of the inventory for Beck's Furniture & Supply - would deplete them emotionally and financially.But even expecting the worst, they had no idea how bad it would be. This would be no David taking down Goliath with a single sling-shot.

Beck had read in the paper that federal cases in Utah get to court in about 18 months. He and Caroline figured that's how long their case would take.

It took four years.

He and his wife thought they would have to spend about $75,000 in attorney fees. Beck has spent more than $300,000.

They thought they could put the lawsuit in a corner of their minds, living the rest of their lives while it went on. But the suit consumed them, filling their lives like the ton of documents that filled their home.

Beck tried to work after his business closed. "But I couldn't focus on anything. There were constant interruptions on my job that had to do with the case."

Then Beck found out Caroline was dying of cancer. "I quit the day I found out. I wanted to spend every minute with her." And he hasn't gone back. "I've been totally absorbed with this lawsuit."

The absorption paid off. Last week, Beck became one of those rare legal realities: a little guy who won a court victory against a major corporation. A federal jury last week concluded that Haworth destroyed Beck's business and ordered the furniture giant to pay Beck at least $625,000 and maybe as much as $1.2 million. The verdict culminated a five-week trial.

Industry rags have run stories on his victory. The media in Haworth's home state called him. Other dealers across the country who have had similar problems with Haworth have called him, he said.

But the victory is hollow. The jury verdict was vague. It concluded that Haworth damaged Beck to the tune of $500,000 and that Beck's business was worth $625,000. But the jury didn't make it clear whether the two numbers should be added together or whether Beck would only be awarded the $625,000, the value of his lost business.

The court will likely be holding another hearing on that matter.

The confusion over the verdict underscores the stress of the case: Every question and nuance has been litigated, Beck said.

That's not likely to end. Haworth has said it will appeal. Even if an appeals court rules against Haworth, it will likely be two more years before Beck sees the money.

"The legal bills are mounting, and I don't see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

And if Beck does win on appeal, the verdict won't cover his debts. When Beck's Office Furniture & Supply closed its doors in 1990, Beck and his wife were left owing about $400,000 to 80 creditors. The couple refused to take out bankruptcy. Beck persuaded his creditors to give him a chance to pay the money off. He begins payments when the lawsuit is over.

Beck also owes $250,000 to a brother who loaned him the money to pay for the lawsuit.

He suffered wild emotional swings during the four years. Grief over his wife's death. Anxiety. "I'd wake up some mornings feeling like it was the end of the world. I'd see disaster everywhere," he said.

When a federal judge canceled his trial last summer because the government briefly ran out of money to hire jurors, he was devastated.

"This has exacted a tremendous cost on Jim. It simply hasn't given him back what he believes he lost," said Jeff Oritt, Beck's attorney.

Beck's advice to others considering a lawsuit: It will be take longer than you think, be more expensive than you think and wear you to the bone.

But for all that, it was worth it.

"I sued them because I couldn't live with myself if I hadn't. Every morning when I shaved, I would see a coward looking back at me."

Living with himself is no longer a problem. Finding a way to live is. Beck has subsisted on Social Security and military disability payments as he has prepared for trial. Now, at 65, he is looking for full-time work. "I have to pay off these creditors."