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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Dec. 8, 2017 2 years ago

Are rich people different?

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'It came down to two competing versions of what happened.'

A billionaire retired business titan and prominent area philanthropist sues the interior designers of his $50 million, 240-foot yacht for overcharging on furniture and accessories, to the tune of $300,000. Court documents detail $500 throw pillows, more than $7,500 for chaise lounges and nearly $13,000 for drapery fabric. Tearful testimony.

An episode of 1980s TV show, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” perhaps?

Nope. This is the real case of Naples resident Tom Golisano. He sued three decorators he hired to refurbish his mega-yacht, the Laurel, outside his Rochester, N.Y., home, for several months in late 2013 and early 2014. Golisano, married to tennis star and former Sarasota resident Monica Seles, alleged the designers, all based in Rochester, charged a 100% markup on $811,000 in goods and materials.

Golisano's lawsuit, filed in Monroe County, N.Y., initially asked for $400,000 in damages. That figure was bumped down to $310,000 by the time it went to trial in mid-November. The jury found in favor of Golisano — but for $50,000, not the full amount.

Rochester attorney Glenn Pezzulo, who represented Golisano, tells Coffee Talk his client “did this as a matter of principle,” and intends to donate the money to an autism charity.

The principle, Pezzulo adds, is one of the lead designers, Norma Goldman, over several meetings, promised she wouldn't overcharge or run a markup, Golisano alleged. Goldman worked for Golisano before, on his upstate New York home. (One meeting where Golisano and Goldman talked about fees for the Laurel project, court records show, took place in Golisano's Naples home.)

Goldman, according to deposition records, presented a different version. She alleged Golisano promised he wouldn't sue her if she fixed several issues with the project — for free — soon after he took the Laurel out for a trip out of West Palm Beach. Goldman, in court, further contended the markup was a misunderstanding, not deception. Goldman's attorney, David Rothenberg, declined to comment.

“It came down to two competing versions of what happened,” Pezzulo says. “Even though it was less than what we had asked for, we are very glad the jury agreed with Tom.”

Beyond the 'rich are different than you and me' air to the lawsuit, Golisano, who founded payroll giant Paychex and once owned the NHL's Buffalo Sabres, remains one of the region's most noted philanthropists.

Golisano became a full-time Florida resident in 2009, wanting to escape New York's high taxes. In the last nine years he's donated more than $30 million to Southwest Florida causes and institutions, including a children's hospital in Fort Myers; a children's museum in Naples; and a field house at Ave Maria University.

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