Lou Mrachek and Greg Weiss with Mrachek Fitzgerald Rose Konopka Thomas Weiss in West Palm Beach
Lou Mrachek and Greg Weiss with Mrachek Fitzgerald Rose Konopka Thomas Weiss in West Palm Beach (Melanie Bell)

Florida Power & Light Co. owes a real estate agent $1.5 million for breaking a handshake agreement made at a tailgate party, a Palm Beach jury found.

The Juno Beach-based company paid about $75 million for parcels of a ranch in Hendry County but gave no real estate commission to Samuel McRoberts for letting FPL know about the land, according to the June 28 verdict.

Florida law says an oral agreement is a binding contract. But McRoberts’ attorneys still had a challenging case to make, as no bystanders heard the conversation between McRoberts and FPL’s then-director of project development Jorge “Buck” Martinez before a football game at Florida State University.

“It’s truly a trial lawyer’s case because it was a ‘he said versus he said’ issue … a classic [case of] two sides telling a distinctly different story and the jury having to decide who’s more credible,” said Gregory Weiss, one of McRoberts’ West Palm Beach attorneys.

McRoberts, a real estate agent focused on large-volume vacant land sales, testified he learned about the McDaniel Ranch through a broker who used to work for him. When he realized the property was near a transmission line and had water rights to 1,000 gallons per acre per day, McRoberts said he knew just the person to contact: Martinez, his daughter’s FSU roommate’s father.

The real estate agent claimed he approached Martinez at a 2008 Parents’ Weekend tailgate party and spoke to him for half an hour about FPL’s need for a combined natural gas and solar farm site.

Later, as everyone headed into the stadium for the game, McRoberts told Martinez he knew the perfect piece of land. If he revealed the location and FPL ended up buying the property, would Martinez agree to pay McRoberts a reasonable commission? Martinez said he would, according to McRoberts.

“He wanted to strike while the iron was hot, so when he saw Buck a second time … on a handshake, he disclosed the information he had,” said Weiss, who tried the case with his Mrachek, Fitzgerald, Rose, Konopka, Thomas & Weiss partner Lou Mrachek.

After that, Martinez dodged all of McRoberts’ phone calls, the plaintiff claimed. FPL purchased two parcels of the ranch in 2011 and 2013.

But FPL’s corporate counsel Charles Schlumberger argued at trial that the tailgate conversation was merely a 10-minute exchange of pleasantries. The company maintained it learned about the land from a 2009 meeting with representatives of the owner, Eddie Garcia.

Besides presenting testimony from McRoberts and his wife — who said she saw a long, “intense” tailgate conversation from a distance — Mrachek and Weiss argued the testimony of those who attended the 2009 meeting was inconsistent.

First of all, Martinez and another FPL employee testified the meeting included the presentation of a map that showed the transmission line, Weiss said. But a Garcia representative testified there was no map and no discussion of the transmission line until a trip to the property months later.

There was also inconsistency about other topics at the meeting: Martinez and his colleague said a solar farm was discussed, but Garcia’s representative said that wasn’t true, Weiss said.

After trial before Palm Beach Circuit Judge David French, the jury found Martinez had authority to bind FPL to a real estate commission contract, that he and McRoberts made an oral agreement and that FPL breached it. After hearing expert testimony about the amount of a reasonable commission, the jury awarded McRoberts $1.5 million.

“FPL is disappointed with the verdict in this case and is evaluating an appeal,” a company spokesperson said via email.

Case: Samuel J. McRoberts v. Florida Power & Light Co.

Case No.: 502014CA012762

Description: Breach of contract

Filing date: Oct. 20, 2014

Verdict date: June 28, 2017

Judge: Palm Beach Circuit Judge David French

Plaintiffs attorneys: Louis Mrachek and Gregory Weiss, Mrachek, Fitzgerald, Rose, Konopka, Thomas & Weiss, West Palm Beach

Defense attorney: Charles Schlumberger, Florida Power & Light, Juno Beach

Verdict amount: $1.5 million