Summary Judgment Based on Contract Language was Improper

Posted on: September 30, 2013

Florida Power & Light Company v. Hayes, 4D11-3802 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013):

FP&L and Robert Elmore entered into two contracts reciting their rights to land initially owned by Elmore adjacent to FP&L’s plant in Broward County. FP&L wished to create a lake on the land to use in cooling water being transferred from the plant. Elmore owned a rock quarry business and wanted to excavate rock from the lake to use in construction. The parties agreed to create a 150-acre lake to achieve their goals. After the lake had been created, Elmore conveyed the property to FP&L but continued to hold title to the “rock, stabilizer and sand lying within the lake presently established on the Property, and will continue to have the right to remove said rock, stabilizer and sand.”

Elmore filed paperwork for the purpose of obtaining the necessary permits to dredge the lake. FP&L filed formal objections and succeeded in having the permits rescinded. Elmore then sued FP&L for breach of contract, conversion, and unjust enrichment, and requested monetary damages. The trial court granted Elmore’s motion for summary judgment. After a bench trial with respect to the issue of damages, the court awarded the plaintiffs more than $20 million. FP&L moved for rehearing on liability and damages. The court denied rehearing on liability, but granted rehearing on damages. FP&L appealed the trial court’s ruling on liability. Plaintiffs filed a cross-appeal seeking reinstatement of the trial court’s initial award of damages.

Each side contended the contract language was unambiguous, but they came to different conclusions with respect to its meaning. FP&L believed “lying within the lake” meant material that is completely underwater. Elmore contended it includes unsubmerged/abovewater material within the boundaries of the lake. As neither side presented undisputed evidence supporting its interpretation of the language, the Fourth District held that summary judgment based on the language was improper. Further, the plaintiffs did not establish that the court abused its discretion in granting a new trial on damages.