Our Chicago consumer fraud attorneys were pleased to see a recent ruling affirming real estate buyers’ right to relief, and punitive damages, after fraud by the builder. Linhart v. Bridgeview Creek Development Inc., No. 1-07-2712, (Ill. 1st May 20, 2009). Plaintiffs Ken Linhart, Beverly Linhart, Amy Gable, Jane Longo, Lloyd Clark and Diane Latta bought four townhomes in the Bridgeview subdivision in Palatine, Ill. in 1997 and 1998. All four units were part of the same building. During construction of that building, a town inspector noted that the foundation was sinking. This problem was not obvious during the pre-purchase walk-throughs, but later allegedly caused the building to sink seven to ten inches, causing cracks in the walls, slanted floors, floors and ceilings pulling apart, sticking doors and windows and flooding.
In 2001, the plaintiffs sued the developer, builder and its owner over these defects, claiming breach of implied warrant of habitability; fraudulent misrepresentation and concealment; and violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. A jury trial returned a verdict of $1.38 million in compensatory damages for all plaintiffs, plus punitive damages of $5,000 plus attorney fees for each plaintiff. Defendants appealed, saying the jury’s decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence; the jury was improperly instructed; the six plaintiffs should have had six separate verdicts rather than one; and punitive damages were improper.
The First District started with the meatiest issue: whether the verdict itself was not supported by the evidence. On the fraud and Consumer Fraud Act claims, the defendants argued that plaintiffs should have shown that they relied on defendants’ misrepresentations when they purchased the townhouses. As to the four plaintiffs claiming common-law fraud, the court wrote, there was in fact ample evidence that they did so. The evidence in the record shows that defendants lied about the cause of cracks in the walls and the foundation, including the statement that “it’s not like the house is going to sink or anything.” Thanks to the village inspector’s report, defendants knew this was not true. Thus, the common-law fraud verdict was valid, and because common-law fraud is enough to support a Consumer Fraud Act claim, both verdicts were affirmed. The court also upheld the amount of the damages, saying qualified expert testimony supported it.
The court next examined the defendants’ argument that plaintiffs should have presented evidence for their own claims separately and received separate verdicts. It’s true that Illinois law requires separate verdicts when separate recoveries are sought, the First District wrote, but on the relevant count — breach of implied warranty of habitability — all of the plaintiffs presented their case as a single plaintiff, asking for repairs to the building as a whole. Thus, the ruling was affirmed. The First also rejected defendants’ arguments that the jury instructions were deficient in several ways. It did find an error in the jury instructions for breach of implied warranty of habitability, but said this error was harmless.
Last, the First District considered the issue of whether punitive damages were proper even though the plaintiffs never explicitly requested them. Punitive damages are available under the Consumer Fraud Act, the court noted, and plaintiffs asked for any relief provided by that law. Furthermore, evidence at trial showed that the defendants acted fraudulently or maliciously, as required for punitive damages, because they failed to correct a defect they knew about and intentionally misrepresented that defect to the buyers. And the trial court did not abuse its discretion, the appeals court said, because it considered both sides’ arguments and the defendants’ financial position. Thus, it upheld the punitive damages award and affirmed all of the trial court’s rulings.
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