A multi-million dollar lawsuit between a chain of groceries and its financer is headed back to a trial court in Miami-Dade County after the 3d District Court of Appeal threw out the jury verdict in favor of the financer. Since the verdict was too non-specific to allow the appeals court to determine which contract the grocery chain breached, and also left open the possibility that the jury improperly mingled the issues of liability and damages, a new trial on both liability and damages was the only available resolution.
REWJB Dairy Plant Associates, which ran a chain of groceries named “Farm Stores,” executed a master lease agreement and several equipment schedules in 1999 with its financer, Bombardier Capital. Some of the equipment schedules renewed automatically unless Farm Stores gave Bombardier at least 270 days advance notice prior to the lease’s expiration date. Farm Stores sought to return certain leased equipment in 2005, but Bombardier told Farm Stores that the notice was not timely under the 270-day provision. According to Farm Stores, the two sides eventually negotiated an agreement for Farm Stores to buy much of the leased equipment, including several prefabricated buildings, and Farm Stores made payments to perform under this alleged agreement.
A few months later, Bombardier sued Farm Stores, claiming that no agreement for purchase existed and, even if it did, Farm Stores failed to perform satisfactorily anyway. The case ultimately went to trial, and a jury found for Bombardier and awarded it $51,000. Following a post-trial motion, however, the judge added $1.077 million to the jury’s award.
Farm Stores appealed, and the appeals court determined that the only proper resolution was to order a new trial on liability and damages. While appeals courts generally try to avoid disturbing the verdicts handed down by juries, the decision of this jury was so ambiguous that the court had no choice but to order a new trial. The trial court used a general jury verdict form, which contained the question, “Did Farm Stores breach their contracts with Bombardier in any way?” The jury answered “yes.” The problem was that, based on this verdict, the appeals court had no way of telling which of the many equipment schedule agreements Farm Stores and Bombardier had executed was the contract that the jury believed Farm Stores breached.
In some cases, the parties might need to undergo only a new trial on the issue of damages, as spelled out by Section 768.74(4) of the Florida Statutes. In other cases, though, when the parties have “hotly contested” the issue of liability and the jury clearly mingled the issues of liability and damages, the only corrective course is a new trial on both liability and damages.
That’s what happened in Farm Stores’ case. The jury’s verdict, finding Farm Stores liable but owing Bombardier only $51,000 in damages, “was the result of some type of compromise on the issue of liability.” A new trial was the only way forward because trying to uphold the existing jury verdict would force the appeals court into the improper position of engaging in “post-hoc mind-reading” to divine why the original jury did what it did.
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