VANCOUVER – An explosive divorce trial that had the potential to reveal intimate personal and financial details about Francesco Aquilini, a co-owner of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team and a member of one of British Columbia’s wealthiest families, ended before it began Monday as Aquilini and his estranged wife announced a last-minute settlement.
The settlement eliminates the need for a lengthy and complex trial in a case that has already laid bare allegations of adultery and ran the risk of revealing previously unknown details about the Canucks ownership and the inner-workings of the Aquilini Investment Group, which owns the team and its arena in downtown Vancouver.
The terms of the agreement between Francesco and Taliah Aquilini will remain secret, but the settlement will not affect ownership of the Vancouver Canucks, which the Aquilini family business has owned for the better part of a decade, one of Francesco’s lawyers confirmed.
“I am pleased to have a reached a negotiated divorce settlement with Taliah,” Francesco said in a written statement that he posted on Twitter.
“This settlement means we will be able to keep our personal lives private and, most importantly, avoid the negative impact of a trial on the children we both love.”
The Aquilinis were married in 1994 and have four children together. Francesco has a fifth child from a previous marriage.
The couple separated in January 2011, setting off a court battle over the custody of their children and the fate of millions of dollars in assets.
Taliah did not say anything as she walked into the courthouse on Monday morning and sat in a small hearing room that was already packed with journalists. After a brief appearance that lasted just a few minutes, Taliah declined to comment until the next court appearance, scheduled for Wednesday morning.
Francesco was not in court, nor was he required to be there.
The settlement was reached Sunday afternoon, just a day before the start of the trial, after five days of negotiations, lawyers involved with the case said. Some of the finer details still need to be worked out, but that was expected to be finished by Wednesday.
One of Francesco’s lawyers, Karen Shirley-Paterson, said the couple’s primary concern was protecting their children from a messy, high-profile divorce trial.
“It’s better to settle than to air the concerns in public,” Shirley-Paterson said outside court.
“They (the children) were first and foremost in the decision to settle and I think everyone is satisfied with the settlement, and it’s good for the children and everyone concerned.”
The four children from the Aquilinis’ marriage currently live with Taliah in the couple’s matrimonial home. While there was no formal order for child or spousal support, Francesco has been depositing money into a joint bank account each month to cover living costs for his estranged wife and their children, according to a previous court decision.
The intense public interest in the case — relatively rare for a divorce proceeding — was fuelled, in part, by the connection to one of Canada’s seven NHL hockey teams.
But the case also offered a rare look into the complicated lives of a well-known, wealthy family, with details of expensive wine collections, fights over hockey tickets, and allegations of infidelity becoming instant headline fodder.
Earlier this year, a judge rejected Taliah’s request to force the sale of a wine collection estimated to be worth nearly $800,000 to cover her legal expenses. She also asked for an order giving her access to vacation properties, hockey tickets and other perks associated with the Canucks while the case works its way through the courts, but that, too, was rejected.
Taliah had alleged in court filings that Francesco had committed adultery, though no specific details have ever made it into public court documents.
She had asked for permission to have her lawyers question Francesco about those allegations in pre-trial discovery, but a judge ruled such evidence would be kept out of the case entirely.
On Monday, Francesco’s lawyer declined to wade into the issue of adultery when asked by a reporter if he denied the allegations.
“There are a number of allegations that were made by both parties against the other,” said Shirley-Paterson.
“Of course it was a concern, it would be a concern for any case, but with a case like the Aquilinis, where the public attention and media scrutiny is so intense, of course they’d want to settle it. … We won’t get into the allegations.”
Allegations of adultery are generally kept out of family law proceedings, and they cannot be used when it comes to child custody or division of property.
Under Canada’s no-fault divorce laws, the most common — and simplest — way for a couple to end a marriage is to prove they have lived separate and apart for 12 months.
A spouse can, however, allege adultery or cruelty to seek a divorce before the one-year period is up.
In this case, because Francesco and Taliah had already been living apart for a year, the judge ruled there was no need to hear evidence about alleged infidelity.
Even if the trial did go ahead, it was unclear how much detail about the Canucks and the Aquilini Investment Group would be made public, as Francesco’s lawyers had planned to ask the judge to keep portions of the trial confidential in order to protect his family’s financial interests and his five children.
There is little concrete information about the Aquilini family business, which as a private corporation isn’t required to disclose its financial records. Some media outlets have attempted to put a value on the company’s worth, but for the most part those have been crude estimates that have varied widely.
Francesco is one of five partners — along with his parents and two brothers — in the Aquilini Investment Group, a holding company that controls a network of corporations and business interests.
The company purchased half of the Canucks hockey franchise from Seattle businessman John McCaw in 2004 for about $250 million and then bought the other half two years later.
Aside from the Canucks, the company’s holdings include Aquilini Development and Construction, which is behind several condo developments in Vancouver and elsewhere.
The investment group also owns Golden Eagle Group, which controls a sprawling section of agricultural land in Pitt Meadows, east of Vancouver, that is home to a golf course, tree nursery, blueberry farm and cranberry farm.
Online, the surprise settlement prompted many users to question why news outlets were covering the story at all.
“Why is this anyone’s business?” one user wrote on Twitter, in what was a common response to the headlines from the day’s developments.
“Sorry, Vancouver media vultures, but no salacious Aquilini divorce trial for you to feast on!” wrote another.
Coverage of divorce proceedings is rare in Canada, partly because more than 90 per cent of all divorces are settled outside of court and partly because few family law cases involve anyone with such a public profile.
Even so, it’s not unheard of for details of such cases to make their way into the public realm.
When Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger separated from his common-law spouse two years ago, media outlets covered various court proceedings linked to the case, including when a judge ordered Kroeger to pay his former spouse $25,000 a month.
South of the border, former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt is still entangled in a divorce case that has been stretching on for years.
McCourt reached a $131 million divorce settlement with his ex-wife, Jamie, in 2011, when he still owned the baseball team. He later sold the Dodgers for $2 billion, and Jamie McCourt has forced the matter back to court as she claims she was misled about the team’s value.
Theodore (Blue) Edwards, a former NBA star with the Vancouver Grizzlies, was involved in a lengthy child custody case a decade ago that went to Canada’s highest court.
Edwards’ trial heard that he had a series of extramarital affairs, including one with a woman he met at a downtown Vancouver sports bar with whom he fathered a child.
Edwards initially won custody of the child, but that decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada. He was subsequently ordered to pay more than $300,000 in child support by a court in B.C.