04/17/06 — Couple gets $1 million judgment against builder

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Couple gets $1 million judgment against builder

By Jack Stephens
Published in News on April 17, 2006 1:47 PM

Although a couple won one of the biggest civil lawsuit amounts in Wayne County history, the wife is saying only one thing: "We're ruined."

Lisa Daniel and her husband, Paul, were awarded $846,000 by a Superior Court jury after they sued a contractor, Jeff G. Moore of Goldsboro for negligence and fraud in the construction of what was to be their dream home on Mount Carmel Church Road.

The Daniels' fourth lawyer, Randolph James of Winston-Salem, says he believes he will have to sue again to collect any money from Moore, who lost his contractor's license.

When Mrs. Daniel was contacted for comment about the case, she said only that she and her husband were ruined and referred other questions to James.

The Daniels' plight was outlined in a report by the N.C. Public Interest Research Group and confirmed by James.

The Daniels' trouble started in 1999 when they hired Moore to build a home on land that had been owned by Mrs. Daniels' family for more than 100 years. They paid a $20,000 down payment.

Soon after construction started, Mrs. Daniel noticed that vinyl flooring in a bathroom was crooked. That led to her discovery that there was a lopsided wall. Moore said he corrected the 5-inch difference in the bathroom, but the framer said that was not the only place that was off. The Daniels then measured the rooms and found many did not match the blueprints.

The couple hired a private inspector who found that a load-bearing wall was wrongly positioned -- one of 27 code violations.

The Daniels then hired R.V. Buric Construction Consultants of Wilmington to inspect the home. The firm recommended demolishing the interior, re-engineering the foundation and starting over.

Mrs. Daniel then filed a complaint with the Licensing Board for General Contractors against Moore. A board investigator said Moore had claimed that he had done nothing wrong and had a certificate of occupancy. After the private inspector found numerous violations, the board investigator contacted the Wayne County Inspections Department.

James said the builder chose to conceal the violations and called that fact in court "a cover-up." He said the defendants "used every delaying tactic to avoid the ultimate judgment day." He said the state's citizens need better protection against the harm that the Daniels suffered.

The county inspector, Joe Nassef, claims he had never done a final inspection or issued a certificate of occupancy, but Moore said he had a certificate and the power had been turned on. Progress Energy said power could not be turned on until a certificate was issued. The investigator then went to the inspections department to look at the records, but a sign-off sheet was missing and so was the inspections box at the site.

James, who has architecture and law degrees, said he has found the relationship between builders and inspectors to be "quite cozy" in larger counties in the state.

"One theme of this case is that the people who are supposed to protect the citizens did not," James said.

James said the county inspectors did not know that the Daniels had taken photographs of the house and showed the little white inspections box was missing. Moore admitted later that the certificate of occupancy had not been issued.

The first lawyer whom the Daniels consulted refused to sue the builder or the county. The next lawyer urged the couple to let the bank foreclose on the house, and he was fired. James is suing the third lawyer for malpractice, because she tried to settle the suit without the Daniels' consent.

In the meantime, the Daniels settled with Wayne County for $94,600 -- a sum that was removed from the jury's award and the amount of damage to the foundation as estimated by the independent inspector. The money allowed the Daniel to pay off most of their current mortgage and left them with a home filled with defects, rising legal bills and rent to pay for a home in which to live.

Almost seven years after construction started, the Daniels won their lawsuit against Moore. The jury ruled in their favor in all 11 issues, awarded them $263,600 in compensatory damages and $150,000 in punitive damages and said they do not have to pay for the defective home.

Superior Court Judge W. Allen Cobb of Wilmington ordered the compensatory damages be tripled to $790,800. With the county's credit of $94,600, the Daniels were left with $846,200, including punitive damages, plus interest.

Whether the Daniels get any of that money is another question. Moore's license was revoked in 2001 for two years. James says he probably will sue to get money from Moore's insurance and the state Homeowner's Recovery Fund, which has a long waiting list and insufficient funds.

"The Daniels had to fight at every level, administratively and in civil court," James said. "If it weren't for Lisa Daniel's tenacity, most folks would have given up long ago."