SARASOTA — A Sarasota County judge reversed a jury's decision in a high-profile case where developer Hugh Culverhouse Jr. had accused other developers of cutting him out of a lucrative mixed-use project through political machinations.
The decision, from Sarasota County Circuit Court Judge Peter Dubensky, vindicates the targets of Culverhouse's lawsuit, fellow prominent developers Henry Rodriguez and Randy Benderson. The ruling also shrinks what was a $20 million verdict into $150,000, and removes Rodriguez and Benderson from personal liability. The remaining $150,000 judgment is directed toward an entity controlled by University Park-based Benderson Development.
“This is a significant ruling by the court, which we believe is consistent with the law,” Benderson Development attorney Steve Chase, with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, says in an interview with the Business Observer. “We are pleased with the outcome.”
Dubensky announced his decision in court April 13, and an official ruling hasn't been filed yet. The ruling, a directed verdict, essentially invalidates the jury's decision. Directed verdicts, say several attorneys, are rare and normally require unusual circumstances. Dubensky recently handed down another directed verdict, in an unrelated trade secrets civil lawsuit. That decision reversed a $3.3 million jury verdict.
In that case Dubensky cited “bait and switch tactics” designed to confuse jurors and “impermissible closing arguments” used by plaintiffs' attorneys that led the jury to make an incorrect decision.
The Culverhouse case, say attorneys for Rodriguez and Benderson, was reversed because of legal issues, not anything the lawyers did.
A key legal issue in the case involves legislative privilege, says Sarasota attorney Morgan Bentley, who represents Rodriguez. Legislative privilege is why Sarasota County commissioners didn't have to testify in the trial about decisions made in the land project that was the center of Culverhouse's suit. And because commissioners didn't testify, attorneys for Rodriguez and Benderson contend there's no way to know why the project wasn't approved. The jury, say the attorneys, therefore made a speculative decision in the case that wasn't based on the law. Dubensky agreed.
“Most of the time these motions do not get granted,” says Bentley, with Bentley & Bruning. “But the judge always decides the law, not the jury.”
Culverhouse says he will appeal the ruling. “The judge should not have given this case to the jury if he felt there was insufficient evidence,” Culverhouse tells the Business Observer. “But the judge instructed the jury they could find for me.”
Culverhouse adds that on appeal, “I like my odds better than their odds.”
The six-person jury decided the case in Culverhouse's favor March 16, after a two-week trial. The lawsuit was filed over a failed mixed-used project on 1,000 acres in south Sarasota County. The project initially was split three ways: Rodriguez, who has developed both residential and commercial properties in Sarasota, was going to oversee the homebuilding; Benderson was going to oversee retail and office space; and Culverhouse, who owns Palmer Ranch in south Sarasota County, was going to develop manufacturing, warehouse and some retail and commercial space.
But Culverhouse claimed Benderson and Rodriguez conspired to destroy the project when they realized certain elements of it had changed or were no longer in their favor.
One key allegation, according to court records, was Culverhouse accused Benderson of sabotaging the project with Sarasota County officials because of the split in retail space. Culverhouse, in the trial and court records, says Benderson thought Culverhouse had too large a share of potential retail space. Culverhouse claimed Benderson threatened to pull his share of the project out and oppose it publicly if Culverhouse didn't scale back his commercial and retail space. Culverhouse also alleged Rodriguez worked with county officials, through emails and public statements, to scuttle the project when problems came to light on zoning rights.