THE MIRROR OF MEDIA

A Property Rights Lawsuit 17 Years in the Making


Fla. officials went into private backyards and cut down citrus trees in the early 2000s. Now, 17 years later, some owners will receive financial compensation.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Nearly 18,000 Orange County homeowners whose citrus trees were destroyed by the state in a futile campaign to eradicate citrus-canker disease in the early 2000s will share $42.4 million – with checks finally arriving in the mail as early as next week, their attorney, Robert Gilbert, said Thursday.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Gilbert of the 17-year-old legal struggle.

He sued the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in 2005 on behalf of homeowners here who accused state authorities of wrongfully destroying healthy citrus trees on private residential properties during the 2000-2006 canker scare hoping to blunt the bacterial disease.

Concerned about canker spreading from backyards to commercial groves, the state hired workers to identify and destroy more than 60,000 citrus trees on 18,280 residential properties in Orange County, part of the Citrus Canker Eradication Program, which also targeted thousands of citrus trees in other counties.

Homeowners were offered scant compensation in return.

Scott Fishman, 63, a Bay Hill resident and a named plaintiff in the case, said agriculture agents, escorted by armed Orange County deputies, came to his home in April 2003 to destroy a grapefruit tree planted in memory of his wife’s father, a lemon tree and an orange tree planted to mark the birth of a son.

“It was very troubling,” he said. “I remember my wife was in tears.”

Agents showed papers authorizing them to cut down any citrus tree located within 1,900 feet of a sick one – over six football fields away.

“They didn’t ask politely, ‘Can we please come in and take your trees?’ No, they said we’re taking the trees,” Fishman recalled.

For killing a homeowner’s tree, they offered in return a $100 Walmart gift, redeemable only in the discount store’s garden center, he said.

Dozens of Orange County property owners resisted the state’s plea for cooperation, flatly refusing to let inspectors onto their properties. In some cases, authorities threatened arrest or obtained warrants to go onto private property and destroy trees.

While not harmful to humans, citrus canker harms the vitality of orange trees, causing leaves and fruit to drop prematurely. Fruit infected with canker is safe to eat but has diminished market value because of canker lesions, which make it unappealing.

At trial, Gilbert, whose practice is based in South Florida, argued homeowners were owed compensation for the loss of healthy trees. The state denied liability and argued the uninfected trees “constituted a public nuisance.”

The jury in Orange County decided every healthy citrus tree destroyed by authorities was worth $344.16.

Post-verdict interest has pushed the per-tree figure over $700.

“These checks are really significant amounts of money for many people,” Gilbert said. “They should keep an eye on their mail.”

Payments to homeowners are based on the number of uninfected trees they lost. According to court records, 12,000 people will get at least $1,000, including 2,400 homeowners who will get checks of more than $4,200 each. Lawyer fees and costs totaled about $1.4 million.

“The homeowners we represented are people whose trees were cut down though they were healthy and not infected,” Gordon said. “The [agriculture] department cut down these trees to create a buffer zone so the disease would not spread to other places. They had a theory that if they cut down every single citrus tree, even healthy ones located within 1,900 feet of an infected one, they somehow would be able to stop the disease from spreading.”

“Their theory, to put it kindly, was not really a well-thought-out one,” he said.

The original jury award of $31.4 million ballooned to $43.9 million because of accrued post-trial interest as state appeals failed.

The Florida Legislature last year appropriated $43.9 million to pay the judgments. In an 11-page order last month, Circuit Judge Jeffrey Ashton approved the distribution plan and authorized Gilbert to send out checks.

Citrus canker was first detected in the United States in 1910 and eradicated in 1933, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But, the USDA website points out that citrus-canker disease was discovered again in 1995 in Miami-Dade County.

“Despite an aggressive tree removal program, USDA was not able to eliminate canker in Florida a second time and ended eradication efforts in 2006,” the agency’s website states. Canker is present today in Florida, Louisiana and parts of Texas.

The Orange County case was one of five Gilbert filed in Florida. He also won judgments in Broward, Lee and Palm Beach counties. A case in Miami Dade County is not resolved, Gilbert said.

© 2022 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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