A Miami-Dade judge on Thursday tossed out a $3.1 million verdict against The Related Group developers only moments after a jury found the developers had wrongfully manipulated the zoning process in a 2007 condo deal.
The decision came after a month-long trial in a lawsuit filed by the Vizcayans, a support group for the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, who had accused Related and its partners of engaging in a conspiracy to win political support for a controversial waterfront condo project next to Mercy Hospital in Coconut Grove. The Vizcayans were seeking more than $1.3 million to recover the legal costs of their successful fight to overturn the Miami City Commission’s approval of the project.
The jury sided with the Vizcayans, finding that the developers committed more than two dozen wrongful acts in pursuit of the projects — from behind-the-scenes meetings with city commissioners to secret deals to pay $8 million to win the support of nearby neighborhood groups.
But Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Daryl Trawick later threw out the jury’s verdict and found in favor of the developers. He said the Vizcayans failed to prove that the developers’ actions “targeted” the Vizcayans, and added that the developers’ conduct was allowed under their rights to petition the government and go to court.
Related’s lawyers, John Shubin and Israel Reyes, argued that the developers’ actions were aimed only at winning approval for the three-tower project, not at harming the Vizcayans. Related’s chairman, Jorge Perez, told jurors he was “totally surprised” when the Vizcayans publicly objected to the project. The Vizcayans feared the condo towers would obstruct views from the Vizcaya, a historic landmark.
Shubin and Reyes argued that the verdict would have essentially punished the developers for exercising their rights to petition the government for zoning and land-use changes.
“For a judge, doing the right thing and following the law are one in the same, and that’s what Judge Trawick did in this case,” said Reyes, himself a former judge.
But Maria Utrera, the jury foreperson, said she was puzzled by the judge’s decision, which left some jurors weeping when they learned of it later.
“I’m really upset about it. I think that justice was not served,” said Utrera, a computer programmer from Homestead. “We think they did manipulate the political system. The evidence showed that what they did was wrong.”
Lawyers for the Vizcayans said they were disappointed with the judge’s ruling, and they plan to appeal the judge’s decision.
“The jury agreed with us totally,” said Vizcayan board member John Hinson. “I would like to think the jury’s verdict sends a message throughout the community that the actions by these defendants are wrong and shouldn’t be tolerated.”
The Vizcayans’ lawsuit was brought under a novel legal theory known as the “wrongful acts” doctrine. They argued that the wrongful acts of the developers forced them to go court to challenge the city’s zoning changes for the project. An appeals court later found that the zoning changes violated state law, and that the vote was tainted by improper communications between Perez and then-Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.