Court upholds modest verdict for fiduciary fraudBert Elgersma sued Re/Max of Grand Rapids and its agent, John Postma, alleging fraud in the sale of his house. The jury found a breach of fiduciary duty, but awarded Elgersma only $25,000.00, even though Elgersma claimed a loss of several hundred thousand dollars in the sale of his house. Ultimately, both the trial court and the Court of Appeals upheld the jury's determination after Eglersma sought relief by additur.
If a court concludes that a low jury verdict lacks any support in the factual evidence, it may offer the losing party the choice of accepting a higher judgment consistent with the facts, or following through with a new trial on the question of damages. In order to offer this relief, however, the court must be convinced that the jury's decision is against the great weight of the evidence and cannot be supported by any interpretation of the evidence.
Elgersma had sold his home to an individual who paid discount prices to buy insurance policies from elderly and terminal life insureds. The buyer gave Elgersma a modest cash payment and then assigned him future interests in life insurance policies to make up the difference in the $600,000.00+ price. Before these future interests paid off, however, the company that owned the policies went bankrupt, paying only 30-some percent to the owners. As a result, Elgersma sold his huge house for less than half of its value, apparently. He argued that he was a victim of fraud and misrepresentation by the Re/Max agent, Postma.
In analyzing the foundation for the modest jury verdict, the Court of Appeals noted that Elgersma was a sophisticated business man with expertise in financial documents and investing. The Court concluded that it was within the jury's reasonable deliberation to conclude that Re/Max had breached its fiduciary duty, but that Elgersma was primarily responsible for his own poor investment choice. As is usually the case, the jury verdict was affirmed.