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Luv2Roam
09-12-2002, 06:14 PM
Country Walk case intensifies
Stephen Van Drake

The ghosts of Hurricane Andrew continue stalking Walt Disney World Co. as the pace of litigation against it gains momentum in a Miami-Dade court.

In a suit nearly as old as Andrew, ARI Insurance ***. of New Jersey last month requested punitive damages against Disney and its former construction manager, Sanford B. Miot of Miami, accusing them of shoddy workmanship and poor materials at the Country Walk development, amounting to reckless disregard of the public's safety.

ARI also claimed defendants repeatedly violated building codes and never designed structures to withstand wind at any velocity.

On Aug. 23, ARI lawyers asked Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Celeste Muir to approve adding a claim for punitive damages after Disney turned down a $5.5 million settlement offer during February's court-ordered mediation, said ARI lawyer Evelyn M. Merchant of Miami's Adorno & Yoss. Miot, however, said he was never involved in any settlement talks.

Muir has not ruled on ARI's punitive damages motion.

The case ARI filed in 1993 could finally be tried within the next 12 months, Merchant said. "This lawsuit has taken on a life of its own."

ARI alleges Disney's gross negligence and reckless indifference to building codes resulted in latent structural defects in 384 Country Walk village homes in 86 separate buildings. When Andrew hit, they were a house of cards ready to fold, court records show.

Now, say ARI's lawyers, it is payback time, and the price tag may escalate to more than $32 million with prejudgment interest and legal fees ? excluding potential punitive damages.

"We see no merit to this case whatsoever. The motion filed on the eve of Andrew's 10-year anniversary was nothing more than a publicity stunt," said Marilyn Waters, spokeswoman for Walt Disney World Co.

Miot also has denied wrongdoing.

Disney turns down $5.5 million settlement offer

ARI also had sued former Disney partner Arvida/JMB, which settled separately in 1999 for an undisclosed sum, Merchant said.

In court documents, ARI alleged it paid $15.5 million to Andrew victims and owners of Village Homes at Country Walk in southwest Miami-Dade.

Merchant said Disney and Miot jointly owe ARI about $13 million before prejudgment interest and legal fees, which she said, run in the "hundreds of thousands of dollars."

If ARI eventually gets a judgment against Disney and Miot at least 25 percent higher than its written $5.5 million settlement offer, ARI can force defendants to pay legal fees under Florida law.

Why has the case dragged on so long?

"We put the case on hold until we could mediate," Merchant said, adding that there were earlier suits over insurance coverage that had to be resolved.

"But mediation was a complete waste of time," said her co-counsel William S. Berk, also an Adorno & Yoss partner. He said Disney always denied there was any proof behind ARI's claims.

"At mediation, we had our experts there, insurance adjuster, all of our proof of serious construction defects. Basic stuff, like no hurricane straps, improper attachment of the roof, trusses falling down, but it made no difference to them," Berk said.

Lauri Waldman Ross, who represents Miot, declined comment. Miot, who is listed on the Florida Home Builders Association Web site as a lifetime officer, said he is president of Berkshire Enterprises, a Miami-based company used to make investments.

Although Miot has found a new career, previously served as the president of the Zoological Society of Florida and is active in improving the Miami Metrozoo, Andrew keeps trailing him in court. As he put it, responding to the new claim of punitive damages: "I realize that anything can happen in this world."

Before they are allowed to prove punitive damages, ARI's lawyers must first satisfy Muir with reasonable evidence that Disney and Miot probably acted with reckless and willful disregard for the public's safety.

Berk and Merchant rely on Miot's January 1994 deposition in their August motion. In that deposition, Miot said he thought he did a "good job supervising the construction of homes at Country Walk."

Miot testified with full criminal immunity and had hired a criminal defense lawyer 19 days after Andrew hit, according to his testimony.

Miot testified he was Disney's designated representative with Miami-Dade County. Miot also said Country Walk was Arvida's first all wood-frame construction project.

Miot said he knew some trusses were exposed to as many as 24 months of weather before incorporated into homes. Wind never entered Miot's mind.

Miot, who said he had a master's degree in engineering and completed all course work for a MBA, testified:

"A. I don't think I ever really thought about a hurricane hitting this area while I was doing any of that development or building. I mean, that was not something that was on my mind, that a hurricane would hit this area.

"Q. If you had thought about it, would you have built the houses any differently?

"A. The answer is 'no.'"

Miot also testified that he never read the South Florida Building Code at any time before or during Country Walk's construction.

After a Miami-Dade building inspector blew the whistle on Disney's alleged violations of the South Florida Building Code, Disney complained to the inspector's superior, Berk said.

"The next thing that happened was county 'special inspectors' that Disney employed replaced county inspectors," Berk states in court records.

Miot briefly touched on Disney's knowledge of a county building inspector's complaint about faulty trusses:

"Q. Did anybody at Disney get back in touch with you once that complaint [about integrity of trusses] became known?

"A. No."

Yet, Miot, in an interview for this story, said he couldn't recall any "special inspectors" Disney hired. But he said he hired a man ? who built thousands of homes ? as a "trouble-shooter."

In his 1994 deposition, Miot added that he had "checkers checking the checkers. ? But clearly, the buck stops at my desk."

However, in court documents, Berk insisted that Disney took over the county's role inspecting Country Walk homes.

"By means that to this day remain obscure, Disney then 'persuaded' Dade County to allow it to use 'special inspectors,' who were employed by Disney," Berk wrote last month seeking punitive damages.

"While the 'fox guarded the hen house,' Disney's homes somehow managed to 'pass' inspection, inspections [that] previously failed, despite rampant, pervasive and life threatening construction flaws," he said.

Miot's testimony revealed it was common practice for Arvida to give Christmas gifts of bottles of liquor and turkeys to county officials.

E-mail law writer Stephen Van Drake at svandrake@bizjournals.com.