An apparent love triangle involving Joan Irvine Smith, one of Southern California’s wealthiest women, has led to a court fight that continues to this day and has outlasted the marriage of two of the parties.
The seven-year dispute involves lawsuits filed by Smith, 63; by her former horse trainer, James “Jimmy” Kohn, 50; and by Meg Howard, 31, the woman Kohn married and divorced during the litigation.
The battle between Smith and Howard continues, with an appellate court last month returning it to Orange County Superior Court.
It all began in 1985, when Smith, the matriarch of the family that gave Irvine its name, hired Kohn, a nationally renowned handler and trainer, to work on her horse ranch, the Oaks of San Juan Capistrano.
The Oaks is just part of the Smith empire. It also is the setting for star-studded parties and home to the annual Oaks Classic Grandprix, which features Smith’s stable of show horses, all prize-winning hunters and jumpers. One horse alone is worth more than $800,000, according to court records.
At the Oaks, Kohn and Smith developed an intimate as well as a working relationship, according to court documents and to friends and co-workers who know them both.
But in April 1989, attorneys close to the case say, Smith became furious when Kohn brought Howard to the Oaks. Smith learned that day that Howard was Kohn’s “live-in girlfriend” and “that he planned to marry her,” according to court documents.
Smith responded by terminating her association with Kohn, which she described in court records as “more than a business relationship.”
That June, Kohn filed a lawsuit suit against Smith accusing her of meddling in how and where he conducted his business. He also obtained a restraining order against her.
He was able to do so, the court record indicates, by virtue of having a long-term lease that granted him broad powers over the property, similar to those held by tenants in commercial buildings.
Kohn accused Smith, described in court records as his “former girlfriend, employer and co-tenant,” of “breach of contract and interference with business relations.”
Smith responded in July 1989, by filing a “cross-complaint” against Kohn and Howard, accusing him of failing to pay employees and allowing Howard--whom she labeled “an inept, talentless and incompetent rider"--to assist him in handling her expensive stable of horses.
Howard later sued Smith for “malicious prosecution,” a matter that received attention just last month from the 4th District Court of Appeal. That court reversed a decision in Orange County Superior Court to dismiss Howard’s suit.
That action now has been returned to Superior Court for further litigation.
Howard and Kohn were married in April 1990, and divorced barely two years later. Friends of the couple, who spoke on the condition that they not be quoted by name, blamed the breakup of the marriage on the stress of the litigation.
Howard’s Santa Ana attorney, Franklin J. Dimino, argued in court documents that Smith’s purpose in bringing the action was to “vex and annoy Howard and to create economic and emotional conflict for and between Howard and Kohn, in retaliation for Kohn’s romantic involvement with Howard.”
In 1993, Kohn and Smith agreed to a confidential settlement. But the case between Howard and Smith continued.
Kohn declined to be interviewed about the case, with his attorney citing the confidential nature of the resolution.
“As a result of my client’s case with her, I can’t go into any details,” said Joseph Demetrius Christopher, Kohn’s Newport Beach attorney.
Through her attorney, Howard also declined to be interviewed. She has since moved to rural Michigan.
Mark A. Smith, one of Smith’s attorneys, also declined to discuss the case. “It was a very volatile, very emotional set of facts,” he said.
His co-counsel, Mark S. Ashworth, did not return phone calls.
Smith also did not return repeated phone calls.
Litigation is not a foreign concept to Smith, whose public profile has included lavish parties and disputes carried out in open court.
The former was best exemplified by “An Evening Under the Stars,” last fall’s charity fund-raiser at the Oaks in honor of actor Christopher Reeve and attended by Reeve and his friends, Robin Williams, Jane Seymour and Joan Rivers. The event raised money for the research and treatment of spinal-cord injuries, such as the one Reeve suffered while riding a horse.
Smith also had recently donated $1 million to UC Irvine for the same cause.
Among her most prominent public tangles was her legal fight with the Irvine Co., the empire founded by her great-grandfather, in which Smith won a $149-million judgment in disputing the family’s share of the real-estate conglomerate after its sale in 1983.
Her millions fueled the rise of the Irvine Co. and helped make it one of the region’s most powerful baronies. In 1994, Forbes magazine listed her No. 341 in its ranking of wealthy Americans, with a fortune estimated at $350 million. Her empire includes an oceanfront home in Laguna Beach and a multimillion-dollar collection of California Impressionism.
There also was the highly publicized disinheritance of her son, Morton Irvine Smith, because she disapproved of his wife, who came from a working-class family in Boston. Morton Irvine Smith publicly estimated that he gave up $100 million for the marriage. His father, Morton W. “Cappy” Smith, is one of Joan Irvine Smith’s four ex-husbands.
Howard’s attorney, Dimino, declined to talk about his client’s case with Smith beyond “what was said in the court record.”
But he offered one observation on which all sides agreed unequivocally.
“Joan Irvine Smith,” Dimino said, “is a very powerful woman.”