and Video Courtesy of First Coast News
By Anne Schindler
Published November 23, 2019
JACKSONVILLE — Cracked stucco, leaking roofs, black
For years, residents of the Herons’ Landing subdivision on Beach
Boulevard have lived in condos that a jury found structurally deficient,
and in violation of Florida’s building code.
Now there is some hope that repairs are coming.
A Florida Supreme Court decision Tuesday put an end to a six-year
lawsuit, forcing homebuilder D.R. Horton to pay nearly $14 million to
repair 240 condos. It’s one of the largest construction-defect judgments
in local history and ostensibly a victory for the condo owners.
But the path to last week’s decision has been so arduous, condo owners
are more circumspect than celebratory.
“It’s certainly not a victory. It’s more a cautionary tale,” former
Duval County Magistrate Judge John Sampson said. Sampson served as
president of the Heron’s Landing Condo Owners Association throughout the
litigation. “We’ve been fighting them for six years now. It came out
well, but other [homeowners association] boards just don’t have the
wherewithal to take on a corporate giant like this, that seemed
unfeeling and uncaring.”
Leaky roof vents caused extensive problems in the
2-story condos, and are among millions in repairs that will
begin as soon as D.R. Horton makes good on its debt.
A the heart of the construction defect claim was
improperly applied stucco, which cracked and led to water damage. But
there were also significant problems with windows, balconies, insulation
and roof vents.
“They were built fast and they were built cheap,” attorney Barry
Ansbacher, who represented Heron’s Landing, said. “Where corners were
cut were not the ‘cosmetic’ finishes people can see, but it’s the bones
of the building -- the stuff that gets hidden until it falls apart.”
The company disputed that claim at trial, arguing that the homes were
fine, that they hired reliable subcontractors and that all of the
buildings passed inspection and were certified by the city of
Jacksonville. They also faulted the condo owners for failing to properly
maintain the homes.
After an epic 36-day trial in the summer of 2016, the jury sided with
condo owners and found D.R. Horton negligent, in violation of Florida
Building Code and in breach of implied warranty. The jury awarded $9.6
million, and later court decisions added an additional $3.5 million in
attorney’s fees and costs. But the case has continued to drag on, and
D.R. Horton still has not paid.
“They use the expense of the process and time delay, and they use it as
a weapon to prevent people from getting fair value for what is
defective,” Ansbacher said.
He says cases like this aren’t just expensive and time-consuming, they
are exhausting for the plaintiffs.
“It’s asking a lot of people to go that far,” Ansbacher said. “The board
of directors, homeowners just get worn down.”
Sampson agrees. He says the lawsuit required hundreds of thousands of
dollars in special assessments to litigate and consumed hundreds of
hours of the board’s time. But it also prevented many condo owners from
selling or moving on.
“Since 2013, when the lawsuit was first initiated, people couldn’t sell
their condos because no financial institution would give them a
mortgage," Sampson said. "People who could no longer afford repair bills
had to take a short sale.”
Sampson himself took a $15,000 bath on the sale of his condo at a time
when comparable units in the area increased $25,000-$50,000.
The lawsuit itself was unusual because construction defect claims are
typically handled in secret arbitration proceedings. Virtually every new
home contract prohibits owners from suing in open court, and instead
forces them into a closed hearing with the builder. Since this case was
filed not by individual condo owners, but by the condo association, the
claim is freed from those limitations.
But cases like this could become even less frequent if bills being
contemplated by the 2020 Florida Legislature become law. One bill
introduced by Senator Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) would require a claimant
suffer “significant damage to the performance of a building,” a standard
that would seem to exclude mold and myriad other building code
The bill would also require the signature of an individual claimant as
part of the litigation process, a tiny detail that could obviate cases
brought by homeowners associations, as in the Heron’s Landing case. The
bill also adds several steps at the early stage of any construction
defect claim that will increase the cost and complexity of filing suit.
Another bill, introduced by Daytona area Rep. David Santiago (R-Deltona)
would require a homeowner pay for and make repairs to their home before
collecting the first penny of a construction defect judgement. For
Heron’s Landing condo owners, that would’ve meant financing roughly $10
million in repairs, over and above the money they shelled out to
First Coast News could not reach D.R. Horton for comment. Throughout the
trial, the company refused to discuss the case or the claims, but issued
"D.R. Horton is committed to superior customer service and providing
families with quality homes and neighborhoods in North Florida. While we
do not believe the community has the construction defects alleged in the
lawsuit, D.R. Horton intends to fully cooperate with the legal process.”
D.R. Horton dubs itself “America’s Largest Homebuilder,” with operations
in 29 states 90 markets, including hundreds of subdivisions in Florida
and Georgia. According to its website, it has built more than 730,000
homes since its founding in 1978.
Sampson is gratified the Florida Supreme Court denied the company's
motion for a rehearing saying, "it puts an end to the case against D.R.
Horton." But even after the company pays, he says, it will take years to
repair the condos, a job that includes stripping all the stucco off and
replacing it with something else.
“I’m satisfied that we did what we felt was right, and we prevailed, but
it’s not the end of the road. There is another 2 to 3 years of work and
endless volunteer hours to get the place up to speed.”
Ansbacher agrees and says any celebration is tempered by the time it
took to get here. He notes that homeowners filed their first formal
claim against the company in 2011 – nine years ago.
“We would consider this ultimately a victory that justice prevailed,” he
says, “but they’ll say look -- even if you prove you’re right, it’s
gonna be eight, nine years later before you even see a penny.”