Despite its status as a city as full of diverse cultures and backgrounds as any metropolitan hub in the world, Miami generally isn’t associated with French culture.
Leave it to private practitioner and Miami Beach native David S. Willig then to introduce some much-needed je ne sais quoi into both the city and its courtrooms.
On Sept. 25, Willig, who is fluent in French, Spanish, Portuguese and his native English, helped to secure a $1.42 million verdict in Miami-Dade Circuit Court for two companies, So Far So Good and Kamarina, owned by French citizens.
According to Willig — who is licensed to practice law in France — his clients were duped by a fellow Frenchman, Frederic Henry, who had promised to assist them with entering the South Florida real estate market by acquiring foreclosed properties and subsequently managing them for resale or rental.
However, Willig’s clients soon discovered that Henry’s company, Minvest USA, had titled many of the investment properties to other companies and entities.
“The triggering factor [to prompt a lawsuit] for them was a certain number of properties had not been titled in their names. The way they discovered it was they were alerted to it by an accountant that was working with them,” Willig explained. He added that because the plaintiffs had met Henry through a mutual acquaintance, they had trusted him implicitly to manage their investments in a proper fashion.
Read the complaint:
‘Empty Chairs Don’t Talk Back’
Willig described the lawsuit against Minvest USA as “unusual” due to the charges made — or rather, those not made — in the complaint.
“Most lawyers, when they see a case like this, their knee-jerk reaction is fraud: ‘I’m going to sue for fraud,’” Willig said. “There are other lawsuits involving these parties involving fraud. [But] ours was based on negligence on the factual theory that this company had an outsized success promoting [the work] they were doing, and they just weren’t ready for it.”
“You promise something to somebody and you’re so busy, you sell it to somebody else,” Willig added. “That was the theory of the case under negligent misrepresentation: The intendant had intended to convey the properties. They just ended up not doing it.”
Minvest USA’s attorney, Neal L. Sandberg with Miami-based Simon, Schindler & Sandberg, told the Daily Business Review that although the jury returned a $1.42 million verdict, it also assigned 15 percent and 40 percent off the blame to the two plaintiffs.
“It doesn’t affect the verdict itself, but does reduce the judgment amount,” Willig said.
One of Minvest USA’s key arguments was that plaintiffs So Far So Good and Kamarina were responsible for their own losses due to mismanagement. Counsel argued that if the companies had tended to their own ventures properly, there’d be no reason to title the properties to anyone else.
“The thrust of the defense was to lay blame at the feet of one of the managers at the defendant’s LLC,” Willig said, noting that the manager had resigned many years earlier.
In other words, the defense maintained that the financial woes were not the responsibility of Minvest USA but rather those of the former employee.
“In the end the remaining manager claimed that the departing manager was the fraud artist that cheated people,” Willig said. “This individual was mentioned a lot in the trial. The defense used the empty-chair argument, which was handy because empty chairs don’t talk back.”
Despite being fluent in French, translating both the plaintiff and the defense’s native tongue for the jury proved to be one of the trial’s steepest challenges for Willig.
“A lot of the communications between the parties were all in French,” he said. “When I produced discovery, a lot of documents in French. Candidly, we anticipated that and had everything translated with a certification. … The defense side didn’t have translations, and some of their evidence was barred on that basis.”
Many of the documents submitted at trial used popular French phrases that didn’t readily translate into English — a major challenge in a jury trial.
“Both sides used interpreters to testify. That was a little bit of a challenge because despite the cosmopolitan nature of Miami, finding a competent interpreter was not as easy as you might think,” Willig said. “Even our interpreter had some rough spots along the way.”
But in the end, Willig was more than pleased with the verdict.
“It’s hard to say what a jury is swayed by, but … they actually gave us, down to the penny, what I asked them for,” he said. “So that not only included the amount paid for certain properties … it also involved conveying title that was free of encumbrances.”
Read the verdict:
Case: So Far So Good, LLC and Kamarina, LLC v. Minvest USA, LLC
Case No.: 2016-32054 CA 01
Description: Negligent Misrepresentation and False Information Negligently Supplied for the Guidance of Others
Filing date: Dec. 15, 2016
Settlement date: Sept. 25, 2018
Judge: Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mavel Ruiz
Plaintiff’s attorneys: David S. Willig, David S. Willig, Chartered
Defense attorneys: Neal L. Sandberg, Simon, Schindler & Sandberg
Verdict amount: $1,421,822.5