Florida Appellate Court Reverses $2 Million Judgment in Property Dispute

In Haynes v. Arman, et al., the Fifth District Court of Appeal considered a real estate contract dispute involving easements and whether the lower court properly granted summary judgment for the sellers. In 2004, the buyer entered into an agreement to purchase a property from the sellers located in Oak Hill, Florida. The property was landlocked with no private access to a nearby road. As a result, the contract for sale included a number of easements for ingress and egress across the seller’s adjoining property. These easements were also included in the warranty deed that the sellers provided to the buyers.

The parties grew to dislike each other, and the sellers filed a lawsuit against the buyers in 2010. The sellers sought leave to amend their complaint some time later to add a claim for punitive damages. In 2015, the sellers filed a third amended complaint that included six causes of action:  fraudulent inducement, breach of contract, slander, trespass, unjust enrichment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The buyer did not hire an attorney for the litigation and filed what the appellate court described as a “rambling response” to the third amended complaint. The sellers moved for summary judgment, and the buyer filed a motion to dismiss. The trial court held a hearing on both motions and ruled in favor of the sellers, awarding $494,485.34 as compensatory damages, along with $1,483,456 in punitive damages and nearly $28,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs. The total judgment exceeded $2 million. The buyer appealed.

In a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must show that there are no material issues of fact and that the party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. On review, the appellate court determined that the factual record was not “so crystallized that nothing remains but questions of law,” and the trial court committed error by granting a punitive damages award.

According to the court, since the sellers demanded a jury trial in their complaint, the buyer was entitled to a jury trial and to have a jury assess the appropriate amount of punitive damages, if any. The record did not state that the sellers had waived their right to a jury trial. The lower court also erred in awarding non-economic damages, i.e., pain and suffering, which are squarely within the jury’s purview. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the order for summary judgment in the sellers’ favor and remanded the action to the trial court.

The dedicated real estate lawyers at Lusk, Drasites & Tolisano are well-versed in contract disputes and have the experience it takes to navigate even the most complex real estate purchase agreement. We will stand by you throughout the entire process and ensure that your rights are asserted in negotiations as well as during trial. Serving clients throughout Southwest Florida, including in Fort Myers, Cape Coral, and Naples, we offer a free consultation to help you assess your legal options. Call us now at 1-800-283-7442 or contact us online to schedule your appointment.

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