A jury recently gave a hefty damages award to homeowners who sued a real estate company for falsely representing that the home they were buying was not located in a flood zone. When the rains came after the homeowners had moved in, the front yard, backyard, and a patio were under three feet of water. The house itself was never flooded. While this was fortunate, it limited the economic damages that a lawsuit would yield, prompting the homeowners to use an unusual legal theory.
The homeowners successfully argued that the realty company had committed fraud. The use of fraud as a cause of action allowed the homeowners to recover noneconomic damages of the kind not commonly awarded in litigation between the buyers and sellers of real estate. In addition to recovering damages for the difference between what they paid for the property and its real value, the homeowners also received a significant award for mental anguish, and an even larger amount as punitive damages.
The company and, in particular, its manager knew about the flooding problem and kept that fact from the home buyers. There was evidence that others who bought nearby property from the same company had battled flooding and had complained about the flooding to the realty company. Moreover, real estate agents testified that sales contracts with prospective buyers for the very property that was in dispute had fallen through when those buyers became aware of the potential for flooding.
The failure to disclose continued in the time after the purchase, when the company manager unsuccessfully tried to get the new homeowners to sign a drainage release, which would have absolved the company of liability for any damage from flooding.