A Davie attorney won’t face a retrial in a legal malpractice case filed after a falling out between two Fort Lauderdale developers over a luxury island project in the Bahamas.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal on Wednesday reversed two post-trial rulings by Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld that favored Robert K. Blake Jr., who was involved in the Bahamian venture with Ellis Diversified Inc.
In a 2011 trial, a jury awarded Blake and his company $4.3 million against James Ellis and his company for breach of contract and unjust enrichment. The jury also issued a negligence finding against Ellis’ attorney, Thomas Bluth, but awarded no damages.
Blake alleged Bluth was negligent in failing to disclose he had a conflict of interest and should have obtained Blake’s consent to waive the conflict.
Streitfeld ordered an award of $10 against Bluth, reasoning a nominal award was justified after the jury found negligence. Streitfeld also granted Blake’s motion for a new trial on damages against Bluth.
Blake was commissioned to build a luxury home, install infrastructure on seven adjacent lots and construct a 16-slip marina with a clubhouse on Staniel Cay in the Exumas. Blake accused Ellis of changing their agreement—which was not in writing—by forcing him to relinquish rights to develop all the lots.
Fourth District Judge Jonathan Gerber wrote that in determining if an award is inadequate, a judge must consider whether the jury’s decision was indicative of prejudice, speculation or ignored evidence.
He also noted the jury could have reached its verdict in a manner consistent with the evidence, and the plaintiffs attorney did not ask for nominal damages during closing arguments or in the jury instruction.
“Because the court erred in finding that nominal damages were appropriate,” no legal basis existed for Blake to seek a new trial, Gerber said.
The court remanded the case with instructions to reinstate the zero-dollar verdict.
Judges Dorian Damoorgian and Melanie May concurred.
Bluth was represented on appeal by David Gersten of Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod in Miami.
Blake was represented by Paul Huck Jr. at Hunton & Williams in Miami.
The attorneys did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.