A Palm Beach County jury decided that the Florida Department of Agriculture owes more than $13 million to homeowners whose 66,493 healthy, uninfected, residential citrus trees were destroyed during the state’s unsuccessful attempt to protect the state’s commercial citrus industry from citrus canker.
The verdict, on March 8, followed two weeks of testimony in which Palm Beach homeowners—represented by Miami trial lawyer Robert Gilbert of Grossman Roth—presented compelling testimony from a number of witnesses about the value of the homeowners’ trees on the date they were destroyed.
The homeowners offered testimony from expert witnesses to show that the state’s figure was grossly inadequate. Eric Hoyer, a Florida arborist, and tree appraiser testified that a tree’s value is based on its height, condition, and planting costs, among other factors, and described the valuation process in detail. An economist, Bernard Pettingill Jr. then used Hoyer’s data to determine that the average tree destroyed by the Department was about 11 feet tall and had a replacement cost of $438.
The jury’s verdict—which worked out to be an average of $210 per tree—substantially exceeded the compensation the state offered as WalMart gift cards and cash during the failed eradication program, which ended in January 2006. The state argued that $100 Wal-Mart gift vouchers, offered to each homeowner for the first tree destroyed, plus $55 for each subsequent tree destroyed, was sufficient compensation. The jury rejected the state’s claim that the Walmart gift vouchers were compensation since they could only be used for certain goods at WalMart, had a limited time before expiration, and could not be redeemed for cash. The jury agreed that the $55 payments offered by the state were compensation, and found that the state was entitled to a credit for the total amount of $55 checks issued to the homeowners.
Gilbert, of Grossman Roth, called the verdict a vindication for the homeowners. “We are very gratified by the jury’s decision,” he said. In addition to the more than $13 million in compensation, Gilbert estimates that the state will have to pay another $2 million more in interest.
Speaking with the Daily Business Review, Gilbert said he intends to reach out to Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam “in the hopes that he, unlike his predecessor, will act like a statesman and see that the time has come to close this ugly chapter in Florida history.”