This Case Cuts Across Several Issue Categories.
Two painted bronze “golfers” compare notes. Carol M. Highsmith Collection. Library of Congress.
Masters v. Burton, Case Nos. B234555/B239447 (2d Dist., Div. 6 July 25, 2013) (unpublished) is a case about errant golf balls and litigation claiming concealment of the golf ball “hazard” in connection with a sale of a residential property fronting a golf course fairway. (I know, some of you readers may be saying “assumption of the risk,” but hold your horses to see what happened.)
Property purchasers sued the former owners and former owners’ relocation company for concealment/nondisclosure of the errant golf ball hazard, losing in a lengthy bench trial. Former owners requested $1.35 million in attorney’s fees (wow!), which was denied by the lower court. Former owners also got hit with $45,000 in “costs of proof” sanctions under CCP § 2033.420 for denying three RFAs on requests that were ultimately proven at trial.
Former owners appealed.
They did not get any further relief.
The fee denial was sustained because former owners (the Burtons) were not signatories to a purchase agreement with a fees clause--the reality was that the relocation company was the contracting party. Nothing alleged that Burtons were the alter egos of the relocation company so as to invoke Reynolds Metal type of exposure.
Then, in an argument we see often, former owners argued estoppel--plaintiffs alleged the right of recover fees, so they were estopped from claiming that nonsignatory defendants were not similarly entitled. Wrong -- “the equitable estoppel doctrine is no longer followed by our courts and contradicts Reynolds,” citing Sessions Payroll Mgt., Inc. v. Noble Constr. Co., Inc., 84 Cal.App.4th 671, 681-682 (2000); Blickman Turkus, LP v. MF Downtown Sunnyvale, Inc., 162 Cal.App.4th 858, 897 (2008).
The “costs of proof” sanctions award was affirmed. In response to three RFAs about errant golf balls causing damage to certain areas of the house, former sellers denied based on the fact they could not respond unless they actually saw the golf ball hit the house although their testimony is that they heard golf balls hit and knew house windows were broken by a golf ball. The trial court found that the former sellers were “word-smithing” to avoid liability, a perception endorsed by the reviewing court when sustaining the $45,000 adverse award.