State refuses to pay citrus canker awards
South Florida Sun Sentinel – July 16, 2011
Five years after the chain saws went silent, the state is refusing to pay thousands of South Florida homeowners for fruit trees destroyed in the fight against citrus canker.
The Florida Department of Agriculture, facing current and potential jury awards of tens of millions of dollars, says state law allows it to avoid paying judgments over actions taken to protect public health, safety and welfare, unless the Legislature appropriates the money. And the agency has no plans to make that request.
The decision affects class-action lawsuits in Broward, Lee, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties. And it reopens a bitter chapter in Florida history, in which tree-cutting crews roamed residential neighborhoods, destroying fruit trees in a battle to protect an industry that’s as much a symbol of Florida as Disney.
The department’s last legal hope in the Broward case vanished in May when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review it. Now the state is invoking a rarely used statute to try to avoid paying.
“It hasn’t been applied that often, but the law is on the books,” said Wes Parsons, attorney for the Department of Agriculture. “It’s just coming up because we have a final judgment in the Broward County case.”
Robert Gilbert, lead attorney for the homeowners, plans to return to Broward Circuit Court in September to force the department to pay. He called the department’s action an “outrageous” attempt to evade its obligations.
“They lost in every court in the state, and I’ve never seen them accept defeat and honor their obligation to their citizens,” he said. “They want to avoid paying citizens for as long as possible, and they don’t care how many millions they spend in attorneys’ fees to do it.’‘
Tim Farley, of Oakland Park, watched tree-cutting crews destroy his four orange trees, two grapefruit trees and lemon tree. Today he has replanted, growing tamarinds and a grapefruit tree. He expects only a few hundred dollars from the lawsuit, insufficient to compensate for his big, fruit-producing trees but important as atonement for what he saw as the state’s violation of his privacy and property rights.
He sees the state’s attempt to avoid paying as another in a series of moves to evade responsibility.
“It’s just their way of delaying the process,” he said. “The judge said they have to pay. They’re shafting the people as usual. If they take your personal property for a public use, no matter what the state law says, they have to pay, and it’s guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.”
Parsons said the department was following the law in leaving it to the Legislature to put up the money to pay homeowners.
“The Department of Agriculture doesn’t have $8 million not appropriated for some other purpose,” he said.
In previous cases, he said, the Florida Supreme Court had found the citrus canker eradication program was to protect the health, safety and welfare of Floridians. Whether you believe people should be compensated for their trees, he said, “it was a legitimate public program to protect Floridians against an invasive agricultural pest.”
The 11-year canker campaign inspired deep resentment among many homeowners who saw it as an attack on property rights on behalf of one of the most powerful commercial interests in the state. While most homeowners cooperated, others set dogs on the crews or physically blocked access to their trees. A series of lawsuits by local governments repeatedly halted the tree-cutting campaign.
Finally in 2006 the state and federal agriculture departments declared defeat, saying the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 had spread the disease, which blemishes fruit, causes premature fruit drop and prevents the state’s fruit from being exported to canker-free states.
Having lost their lawsuits to stop the tree-cutting, homeowners went to court and won compensation in a series of class-action lawsuits.
“Under any possible meaning, if government cuts down and burns private property having value, then government has taken it,” wrote Appellate Judge Gary Farmer of the 4th District Court of Appeal, in affirming the Broward judgment. “And if government has taken it, government must pay for it.”
Mark Fagan, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, left open the possibility that an agreement could be worked out.
“The commissioner at this point is still reviewing whatever actions need to be taken to resolve the situation to the benefit of all Floridians,” he said.