LAKELAND – Fighting to recoup money lost because of her home’s shoddy construction has taken more than a decade of Michelle Gray’s life, and extracted a terrible toll both financially and emotionally, but it seems the Hillsborough woman will finally see compensation for her ordeal to the tune of $168,000.
That was the sum reinstated by Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal in favor of Gray and against Mark Hall Homes of Plant City. A jury originally awarded $168,000 to Gray in November 2014; however, Circuit Judge Scott Stephens reduced the amount to $16,000, forbidding the jury to consider a separate case of negligence.
According to the appeals court, it was bad logic on the judge’s part when he partially granted a defense motion claiming it had not been conclusively proven the damages alleged by Gray were due to construction defects.
The appeals court went on to say in its written ruling that it was not the trial court’s job to establish witness credibility or weigh competing evidence. Factual issues, such as conflicting evidence, should be considered by the jury. Furthermore, the artificial award limitation by Stephens was not appropriate, according to the court.
A newspaper story detailing Stephens’ award reduction caught the eye of lawyers at Saxon, Gilmore & Carraway, a minority/female-owned Tampa law firm. The firm was appalled at the ruling and offered to handle Gray’s appeal pro bono.
“The nature of this case as reported in the newspaper is what prompted our firm to handle the case pro bono," attorney Tracy Evans, who worked on the case, recently told the Florida Record.
A little less than a year and a half later, Evans feels vindicated that a serious travesty of justice was rectified by the appeals court opinion.
Even the $168,000 award barely covers $100,000 in attorney fees stretching back over the nine-year history of the case before Saxon, Gilmore, & Carraway arrived on the scene, plus $30,000 in accumulated property taxes Gray faces. And it does nothing to mitigate the loss of a $200,000 house she paid for in 2005, now described by the property appraiser’s office as holding only the value of the land and a “shell of a house.”
With a client’s financial life still in ruins even after considering the award, was the monetary sum the jury arrived at appropriate?
“I do not think it is our place, and as this case illustrates, certainly not the judge’s place, to second guess the jury award,” Evans said.
Gray’s claim before the court, supported by various land professionals and witnesses, was that shoddy construction by Mark Hall Homes allowed a deluge of rainwater to enter the home less than a year after it was built, leading a to mold problem and ongoing seeping water damage that rotted floor joists supporting the second floor. Later inspections allegedly verified the house was built off-center.
What’s next for Michelle Gray? Estimates say it will cost $30,000 to tear down the rotten house. That is money she doesn’t have. She does intend to seek criminal charges with the state attorney’s office, alleging Hall lied under oath when he told divergent stories about his personal level of supervision of the bungled house.
“Any criminal prosecution would be handled by the state attorney’s office, assuming they decided to pursue charges against Hall," Gray said.