(Santa Ana, CA) Thirty-one days of trial testimony have culminated in a resounding defense verdict in a trial involving a commercial property in Orange County, California. After six hours of deliberation, the jury rejected a myriad of claims from the plaintiff, who leased a restaurant in a commercial area. Plaintiff claimed damages against the building property owner and management company exceeding $10.5 million, plus punitive damages and attorney fees.

WSHB trial attorney Pete Burfening’s defense verdict not only exonerates our clients but allows them to recover attorney fees under the lease agreement.

Strict COVID protocols adopted by the Orange County Superior Court meant everyone in the courtroom except testifying witnesses were required to mask-up and take other safety measures. “Jurors wearing masks made it difficult to gauge reactions to pivotal evidence, but it was clear to me that they were incredibly attentive throughout this protracted trial,” said trial attorney Burfening. “They listened carefully to the evidence, which was even more obvious especially after speaking with them following the verdict.”

WSHB represented a commercial building owner and property manager who leased plaintiff restaurant space in a multi-tenant commercial development. Plaintiff alleged that the owner and its property manager failed to properly maintain the common area grease line servicing the restaurant, causing a backup of grease and water into the restaurant space just days before its grand opening. Eight causes of action framed the commercial tenancy dispute, including negligence, nuisance, and trespass related to the grease line backup, as well as breach of the lease agreement, breach of express covenant of quiet enjoyment, forcible entry, trespass, and intentional interference with prospective economic relations for their actions following the grease line backup.

All told, the plaintiff claimed more than $10.5 million in damages, plus punitive damages and attorney fees. WSHB trial lawyer Burfening methodically dissected various components of the claim through strategic pre-trial motions, powerful causation arguments and focus on the contractual obligations of each party under the commercial lease.

The defense team successfully excluded both plaintiff’s economic and property management experts before trial following evidentiary 402 hearings. In excluding the plaintiff’s economic expert, the court held that pursuant to Sargon Enterprises, Inc. v. University of Southern California, the plaintiff was not an established business, and the claim for lost profits by an unestablished company was inherently uncertain and speculative.

Burfening and his team successfully argued that WSHB’s clients did, in fact, properly maintain the common area grease line and did not cause the grease line backup. He also was successful in arguing to the jury that the plaintiff had failed to meet its obligations pursuant to the lease agreement, and it was the plaintiff that was in breach of the lease for its failure to pay rent.

Notably, WSHB filed or responded to over 30 discovery motions in the case. The WSHB team successfully defended their clients against the plaintiff’s attempts to pursue privileged financial information related to the real estate investment manager that oversaw the property management, also represented by WSHB. The court sanctioned Plaintiff and its attorneys over $30,000 during the life of the litigation for its motion practice and efforts to seek privileged information.

“This case has been watched by the commercial real estate and property management industry, as it truly represents the perfect storm of unfounded claims brought by an aggressive litigant who selectively chose parts of the lease agreement to pursue,” said founding partner Kevin Smith. “This is a case where things went wrong, and the perceived deep pockets were the target of aggressive litigation. Pete’s prowess in the courtroom showcased his strategic abilities and powerful trial skills in a challenging case.”

WSHB’s clients now stand to collect their attorney’s fees and costs from the plaintiff under the lease agreement.

“This is the fourth defense verdict in a row coming out of our Southern California offices, successfully navigating the safety protocols from the pandemic,” said Stewart Reid, firmwide managing partner. “This verdict underscores the depth of our trial bench that is tackling challenging cases factually, legally and logistically.”

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