Restricted Appeal Sets Aside Damages for Backyard Debacle

Sylvester Davis sued TexPro Construction Group after the contractor failed to complete a backyard construction project. When TexPro failed to file an answer, Davis sought and obtained a partial default judgment on liability. TexPro then answered, but Davis moved forward with a hearing to establish damages. TexPro did not appear at the hearing, and the trial court awarded judgment for $117,230 in compensatory damages, treble damages under the DTPA and $350,000 in exemplary damages. After blowing through the deadlines for an ordinary appeal, TexPro hired new counsel and filed a restricted appeal. The Court of Appeals held that there was no error on the face of the record just because TexPro’s registered agent had been served at a location different from the address listed on the citation. The Court also held that there was no error in the trial court’s decision to move forward with the damages hearing, since the filing of TexPro’s answer did not negate the previously-signed default judgment on liability. However, Davis’ testimony on damages was the full amount of the money paid to TexPro, without accounting for the value of the work that TexPro had actually performed. Because his affidavit testimony was conclusory in alleging that the work done was valueless, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial on damages.

TexPro Constr. Group, LLC v. Davis, No. 05-14-00050-CV

Intrinsic vs. Inherent Value in an Insurance Dispute

Bruce Bernstein wrecked his Porsche, then sued his insurer for violations of the Insurance Code and DTPA. An appraiser valued the car at $4900, and Safeco had tendered a check for $5287.50. The trial court granted summary judgment for Safeco, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Bernstein could not recover under the prompt payment provisions of the Insurance Code because Safeco had timely paid the appraisal award, nor could he recover for bad faith because he did not appeal the adverse judgment on his breach of contract claim. Bernstein also could not recover on his fraud claim because he could not identify any misrepresentation by Safeco that would have led him to believe the insurer would cover “the true value of the car,” which he apparently claimed to be “the investment he made to the Porsche beyond the basic value of the car.”

Bernstein v. Safeco Ins. Co. of Ill., No. 05-13-01533-CV

Follow the Contract If You Want to Recover Liquidated Damages

G.C. Buildings hired RGS Contractors to build an apartment complex in Oklahoma, funded by a $7 million loan insured by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The contract provided that the date of final completion was the date that the HUD’s representative signed its final “Trip Report,” which turned out not to be signed until 161 days after the completion of work date called for in the contract. The construction contract contained a liquidated damages clause providing for a daily deduction from the contract price for each day past the construction deadline, but G.C. did not make any such deductions, instead paying the contractor in full. More than two years later, G.C. sued RGS in an attempt to recover either actual or liquidated damages. After a bench trial, the trial court ruled in favor of the contractor, finding that G.C. had not established a proper measure of damages for breach of contract.

G.C. argued that the interest payments it made during the period of the construction delays constituted its damages, but the Court of Appeals rejected that claim because G.C. was obligated to make those payments regardless of when or whether the construction on the apartment complex was completed. As to liquidated damages, the Court held that such damages could not be recovered because G.C. had not followed the procedures of the contract to determine whether a flat $2,101.68 charge or the actual cost of interest, taxes, and other fees should have been deducted from its payments to the contractor. Thus, the trial court’s findings were supported by legally and factually sufficient evidence, and the judgment was affirmed.

G.C. Buildings, Inc. v. RGS Contractors, Inc., No. 05-13-00151-CV

Invalid Assumptions Doom Expert Damages Opinion

In this legal malpractice case, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s expert opinion as based on invalid assumptions.  The expert opined that the value of sale of an interest in certain oil and gas wells would have been $960,000 greater in April 2008, when the interest should have sold but for a law firm’s malpractice.  Among other faulty assumptions, the Court noted that the expert wrongly assumed that (1) the later sale, in September 2008, was a simple asset sale, when, in fact, it involved a partial settlement of a lawsuit; (2) the projections of actual drilling costs, as opposed to actual results, were the proper measure of costs; and (3) that wells would have been drilled at a certain specified rate.

Thompson & Knight v. Patriot Exploration LLC

Mental Anguish Damages Award Reversed

In this restricted appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in entering a default judgment against it in the absence of evidence establishing mental anguish damages.  Because the trial court received testimony of the plaintiffs physical injuries form a slip and fall, and no testimony on mental anguish, and because there was no way to distinguish between the award of mental anguish damages and those awarded for past physical pain, the judge’s award of $20,000 constitutes error on the face of the record.

Center Operating Co. v. Duncan

A Good Problem to Have

An employer sued its former employee for misappropriating funds from the company, alleging multiple causes of action, including breach of contract, fraud, and breach of fiduciary duty.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the employer on all counts and awarded economic and punitive damages.  The trial court also awarded the employer attorneys’ fees based on its breach of contract claim.

On appeal, among other things, the employee argued that the trial court’s damages award violated the one-satisfaction rule, which limits a plaintiff who suffers a single injury to damages based on only one cause of action.  The Court of Appeals agreed, noting that “when a defendant’s acts result in a single injury and the jury returns favorable findings on two or more theories of liability, the plaintiff has the right to a judgment on the theory entitling him to the greatest or most favorable relief.”  Consequently, the Court set aside the attorneys’ fees and statutory damages awarded by the trial court, and awarded the employer economic and exemplary damages under its breach of fiduciary duty claim (which does not provide for the recovery of attorneys’ fees) because that result gave the employer its largest recovery.

McCullough v. Scarbrough, Medlin & Assocs.

Third Party Beneficiary, Choice of Law, and Liquidated Damages

A franchise agreement between Applebee’s and Gator Apple (a Florida franchisee) prohibits the franchisee from soliciting or hiring anybody from another franchisee who was employed by that other franchisee within the previous six months, states that other franchisees are third party beneficiaries of the franchise agreement, and provides for liquidated damages equal to three times the employee’s annual salary. A Texas franchisee, Apple Texas, sued Gator Apple under that provision after Gator Apple hired five of Apple Texas’ current or former employees and executives. The trial court granted summary judgment for Apple Texas, awarding it liquidated damages in excess of $1.2 million. The Court of Appeals affirmed. After determining that the franchise agreement was governed by Kansas law due to its choice of law provision, the Court upheld the award of liquidated damages under Kansas law. The Court also rejected Gator Apple’s argument that a fact issue existed on its affirmative defense of waiver, as none of the waivers it relied on authorized Gator Apple (as opposed to other franchisees or Applebee’s corporate) to solicit Apple Texas’ employees.

Gator Apple, LLC v. Apple Texas Restaurants, Inc., No. 05-12-01369-CV

No Record, No Error

Mark Palla filed suit against a group of defendants for breach of contract and tortious interference arising out of the breach of a sales commission agreement. The jury returned a verdict for $278,718 on the contract claim against Bio-One, Inc., and exactly $100,000 for tortious interference against Aydemir Arapoglu and Transtrade LLC. Palla argued that the tortious interference damages should have been the same as the breach of contract award and that each of the defendants should be jointly and severally liable for the entire amount. The trial court disagreed, entering judgment against Bio-One for $178,718 and against all three of the defendants, jointly and severally, for an additional $100,000. Palla appealed, but the Court of Appeals affirmed. Although generally the measure of damages for tortious interference is the same as the measure of damages for the breach of the contract, a tortious interference defendant is only liable for damages that are proximately caused by the interference. Thus, the question on appeal was whether there was any evidence that the defendants’ interference had only caused a portion of Palla’s damages. But Palla had not brought forward any record of the trial proceedings, due to the belief that he was entitled to the full amount of contract damages as a matter of law. Since the Court of Appeals could not determine whether the evidence supported only a partial damage award for tortious interference, Palla could not demonstrate that the trial court had erred by refusing to disregard the jury’s finding.

Palla v. Bio-One, Inc., No. 05-12-01657-CV

No Extra Damages for Continuing to Perform a Repudiated Contract

The Court of Appeals has issued a lengthy opinion in a breach of contract case. Defendant Richard Berryman and his company, Berryman South Fork, claimed that J. Baxter Brinkmann International Corp. had constructively terminated the contract and owed them $160,000 in unreimbursed expenses. JBBI got to the courthouse first, however, and claimed that Berryman had breached the contract by failing to continue his performance. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of JBBI and awarded it more than $500,000 in damages, attorney fees, and interest.

Among many other issues, the Court of Appeals held that JBBI could not recover approximately $290,000 in breach of contract damages for payments it made to Berryman during the months following his attempted repudiation of the contract. That holding flows from the 88-year-old case of Osage Oil & Ref. Co. v. Lee Farm Oil Co., 230 S.W.2d 518 (Tex. Civ. App.–Amarillo 1921, writ ref’d). In that case, the court held that when a party is served with notice that the other party is repudiating their contract, the first party cannot continue to perform it and thereby increase the damages to which it would otherwise be entitled. However, that principle apparently does not extend beyond the breach of contract claim, as the Court’s opinion affirmed JBBI’s award of even greater damages for money had and received. The opinion also includes multiple discussions regarding the preservation of issues for appeal, including through pleadings, evidentiary objections, and briefing on appeal.

Berryman’s South Fork, Inc. v. J. Baxter Brinkmann Int’l Corp., No. 05-12-00492-CV

No Carrying Costs In Breach of Real Estate Contract Dispute

Among other claims, the Olmsteads sued the Goldmans for breach of contract to purchase residential real estate.   The trial court rendered judgment in favor of the Olmsteads and awarded them damages and attorney fees; the Goldmans appealed.  The Court of Appeals partially reversed, holding that the Olmsteads take nothing on their claims and remanded the issue of attorneys’ fees.  The Court found that the trial court erred by awarding the Olmsteads damages based on the carrying costs of the house after the Goldmans breached the contract until the house was sold.  The proper measure of damages was the difference between the contract price and the market value of the house on the date the Goldmans breached the contract, which was zero.  The court reasoned that non-breaching sellers should not be awarded the post breach costs of ownership because it could “incent the seller to hold the property indefinitely while waiting for market conditions to change, or for a purchaser willing to pay a specific price.”

Goldman v. Olmstead