WEST PALM BEACH – A contentious Broward County citrus canker court case has led to something not often seen after court cases – both sides declaring victory.
"He (defense attorney Wesley Parsons) is in a no-win situation and is just trying to put his best foot forward; Nothing more than that," Robert Gilbert, the attorney for the homeowners in this case, told the Florida Record.
After the hearing, when told that Gilbert was celebrating a victory, Parsons told the Palm Beach Post "Bobby (Gilbert) lost," with a smile.
In a case that dates back almost 10 years, a group of Florida homeowners are seeking damages from the Florida Agriculture Department for the destruction of citrus trees in a failed effort to combat citrus canker, a destructive and highly contagious plant disease. Juries across the state have sided exclusively with the homeowners, handing the state a number of defeats - $8 million in Broward County, $16.1 million in Palm Beach County (a ruling that currently sits at $23.6 million with accruing interest), and cases in Orange and Lee counties have $44 million in combined rulings.
The 4th District Court of Appeal on May 4 ruled on the Broward County case, refusing to declare unconstitutional a state law mandating that the Florida Legislature must appropriate money in the state budget for rulings to be paid. The legislature thus far has refused to do so in these cases, and the court of appeal ruled that with the law written as it is now, that's all that can be done.
The court said, however, that this law cannot trump the constitutions of Florida or the United States, both of which declare that property owners must be compensated when the government takes or destroys their property.
The judge instructed Gilbert to return to Broward County and make one more attempt to collect the $8 million ruling. If the court does not mandate the award be paid out, the judge said the appeal court will directly take on the issue of striking down the law.
"The constitution of our state trumps special laws designed to thwart our constitutional rights and protections," Gilbert said. "That’s basic Government 101. The commissioner of agriculture and his subordinates apparently missed that lesson."
Parsons, arguing for the state, has said that the landowners were compensated, thus he thinks Gilbert will be unsuccessful in Broward. The award, however, was likely far less than the homeowners were seeking. The state offered the homeowners a $100 Walmart gift card (to be used at the stores' garden centers) for the first tree they lost, and $55 gift cards for each additional tree.
Jurors in the cases apparently thought this was insufficient as well. They were aware of the gift card offer when they made their rulings.
Gilbert says he will comply with the appeal court request to take the case back to Broward County court, seeking the same outcome he has from the start.
"The same outcome I have pursued since I first undertook these cases 16 years ago – to enforce our constitutional guaranty of full compensation for citizens of the state of Florida and to stem government abuse of our private property rights," he said. "That is a concept that everyone – conservatives and progressives alike – should be able to support."