In re: DeFacto Condemnation and Taking of Lands of WBF Associates, L.P., 972 A.2d 576 (Pa. Commw. 2009).

A jury verdict concerning fair market value of property subject to a de facto taking will be upheld as based on substantial evidence where the jury views the property and its valuation is within the range of expert appraisals during trial, and a landowner is properly awarded interest, delay damages and attorneys’ fees.
Case Details:

This opinion concerns ongoing litigation between WBF Associates, an entity which owns a 632-acre tract of land adjacent to the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority (“LNAA”) property on which it operates the Lehigh Valley International Airport.  WBF had entered into agreements to construct a residential development on the property, but these projects failed and resulted in judgments against him after LNAA announced it was acquiring 1,500 acres of land for Airport expansion, including WBF’s property.  WBF filed a petition for appointment of a board of viewers under the Eminent Domain Code alleging a de factotaking of its property based on LNAA’s actions.  In prior proceedings, the trial court determined WBF established a de facto taking.  This decision was appealed and upheld by the Commonwealth Court.  The Board of Viewers then conducted hearings to determine the fair market value of the property based on its highest and best use, a planned residential development as determined in an earlier case.  The Board of Viewers awarded WBF $8,500,000 plus mortgage interest and delay damages.  Both parties appealed and sought a jury trial.  The jury awarded $10,410,000 as just compensation together with delay damages, mortgage interest and attorneys’ fees.  The total verdict was $24,099,236.02.  LNAA appealed to Commonwealth Court.

LNAA’s asserted three challenges: the determination by Court of Common Pleas that the property’s highest and best use was as a planned residential development, exclusion of LNAA’s valuation testimony and evidence and a general challenge that the jury verdict was excessive and against the weight of the evidence.  The Commonwealth Court rejected all three challenges and affirmed the jury award and verdict.

The Commonwealth Court determined that the conclusion that the highest and best use was the 1,488 unit planned development constituted the “law of the case” and could not be challenged after a jury verdict on appeal.  Because it was undisputed that the highest and best use was the 1,488 unit development, the Court upheld the Lower Court’s evidentiary rulings that excluded any and all evidence by LNAA expert witnesses concerning alternative uses of the property.  Commonwealth Court also upheld the Court’s refusal to remove a juror for sleeping, as LNAA could not demonstrate it suffered actual prejudice.  It deferred to the discretion of the Trial Court which found the periods of inattentiveness were not such that he couldn’t competently deliberate.  The final challenge was LNAA’s claim that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence and so excessive that it created the impression that the jury was influenced by sympathy, prejudice or passion.  Because the verdict was within the range of valuations set forth by the expert witnesses and based on a review of the property, the Court properly held it was supported by evidence and refused to grant a new trial.  The Court also determined that the verdict was properly molded based on ample evidence concerning delay damages, attorneys’ fees and interest.

Date of Decision: 4/28/09

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