After Alicia Borders was awarded $5,626 for getting stuck with a car patched together from two wrecked Pontiacs, a Miami-Dade circuit judge awarded her attorney $62,000 in legal fees.
On Wednesday, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the legal fees, despite the defendant, Bull Motors LLC, insisting it was the prevailing party.
The Hialeah dealer, doing business as Maroone Ford Miami, said Circuit Judge Gisela Cardonne Ely erred by refusing to consider an early settlement proposal that exceeded Borders’ final recovery. Bull Motors also argued a reduction the judge made on the original fee claim was tantamount to the dealer prevailing.
Third District Judge Vance Salter disagreed, stating the circuit court considered substantial evidence, including witness deposition transcripts, hourly time records and fees for similar cases.
Cardonne Ely also reduced plaintiffs attorney James Loren’s fees by more than half because he did not prevail in opposing arbitration, for which Loren billed more than 100 hours.
“Only Ms. Borders obtained a significant benefit sought in her lawsuit. She was the ‘prevailing party,’ ” Salter said.
As for the dealer’s early settlement proposal, Salter said such offers don’t apply in cases seeking release of all claims, both equitable and monetary.
Borders sued the dealership under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act in 2007. After buying a 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix in 2005 for $20,301, she noticed it was wearing out tires at an unusual rate.
She tried to trade it in to another dealer, which obtained a Car Fax report showing her car was assigned a “salvage title” by New Jersey in 2004. Its mileage was 76,820, not the 45,614 miles showing when she bought it. She was told the car was worthless.
Borders took the car back to Maroone and demanded the dealer take back the car and give her a refund. Maroone refused.
Loren of Plantation said Maroone’s salesman claimed the car was previously owned by a firefighter who treated it with kid gloves, and that it was in good condition.
Loren hired an expert who found two different colored paints under the outer coat.
“The car was essentially pasted together from two separate vehicles,” Loren said.
In 2010, arbitrator Lawrence Saichek submitted findings that said the car “had its odometer changed or rolled back.”
Maroone insisted its staff was unaware of the car’s condition, according to the arbitration report. But Loren’s witness said any competent, seasoned car appraiser would have discovered the car’s true condition.
Maroone “had no credible witness to refute this testimony,” Saichek said. “In the opinion of this arbitrator, any individual experienced in evaluating used vehicles would have or should have witnessed the same conditions witnessed by claimant’s expert.”
Bull Motors’ attorney, Richard Ivers of Coral Springs, did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Loren added another client that obtained a permanent injunction against Bull Motors after signing two sales contracts and the vehicle price changed without her knowledge.
The injunction entered by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick on May 30 includes a standard form drafted by the court that must be given all customers in a large bold font. It warns that conditionally approved financing may result in the financing being rejected. In that event, the consumer has a right to cancel the transaction and get a refund.
Bull Motors also must mail a letter advising the customer of the disapproval, the reason for it and specifying what terms are required to qualify for financing.
“They are appealing that injunction,” Loren added.
Chief Judge Frank Shepherd and Judge Thomas Logue concurred in Salter’s opinion.