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Borough of Cliffside Park v. Estate of Catanzaro

A-5761-08T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2010) (Unpublished)

CONDEMNATION; VALUATION — A jury verdict, even when setting a condemnation award, must stand unless it is so distorted and wrong as to manifest a plain miscarriage of justice.

A municipality filed a condemnation action. The property had a single building with a restaurant on the first floor and residential apartments on the second and third floors. The lower court appointed commissioners who made a determination of the property’s value, which the municipality rejected. The case went to trial, and a jury awarded the landowner $850,000.

The trial consisted chiefly of hearing the opinions of each party’s appraisers. The municipality’s expert valued the property at $590,000, having analyzed the comparable sales of four other similar multiple-use commercial properties. He also considered the property’s fixtures and calculated the potential income an owner would expect to receive from the rental of the apartments and the use of the restaurant. The landowner’s expert valued the property at $1,225,000, and testified that he used the direct sales and income approaches to establish a base value of $1,100,000 for the property’s status as a general commercial mixed use building. He then added $125,000 to account for the additional value attributable to the special restaurant-related improvements. The landowner appealed for a new trial, arguing that the jury merely averaged the two appraisals, and did not take the time to adequately weigh the evidence, having come to a conclusion after only thirty minutes.

The Appellate Division upheld the jury’s verdict, holding that a jury verdict must stand unless it is so distorted and wrong as to manifest a plain miscarriage of justice. While the Court agreed that averaging is not an appropriate methodology for assessing divergent values, the Court found no evidence that the jury, in fact, had averaged the appraisals. It thought the jury may have been persuaded by the comparable sales utilized by the municipality’s expert. Notably, that expert referenced a property with a lot size almost identical to the subject property that had sold for $825,000, the same amount as the jury’s verdict. Therefore, the Court found insufficient grounds upon which to intervene or upset the jury’s verdict.

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