On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. L-819-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Wefing, Grall and Messano.
A jury considered claims of a general contractor/interior decorator, plaintiff Laura Costa, doing business as Designer Showcase, and counterclaims of the homeowners who retained her to oversee the construction of their home and used her services in decorating its interior. The defendant homeowners are Peter and Carol Jegou. The jurors found that the Jegous breached an agreement to pay Costa $34,000 and that Costa violated the Consumer Fraud Act (CFA), N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 to -20, by falsely representing the nature and value of the furnishings she sold to them. The jurors awarded Costa $34,000 for breach of contract and the Jegous $34,000 for the violation of the CFA. The jurors rejected Costa's claim that she was entitled to reimbursement beyond the $34,000 due under the parties' agreement. Final judgment was entered as follows: in favor of Costa, $34,000; in favor of the Jegous, $102,000 plus $30,465.08 for fees and costs, including $3000 for the Jegous' expert appraiser.*fn1
On appeal, Costa contends that she established her entitlement to reimbursement beyond the amount stated in the agreement breached by the Jegous. She also argues that the Jegous failed to prove a violation of the CFA entitling them to damages in the amount of $34,000, and that even if they did, the judge erred by requiring her to contribute to fees the Jegous paid their expert.
On their cross-appeal, the Jegous seek reversal of the award in favor of Costa for breach of contract and enhancement of the damages awarded to them for violation of the CFA. They contend that the damages do not fully compensate them for their loss of the benefit of their bargain.
Because the Jegous did not present evidence adequate to give the jurors a reasonable basis for quantifying the loss they sought to recover, we reverse and vacate the damage award in their favor. We further conclude that our decision to vacate the damage award warrants a remand to permit the trial judge to reassess the award of fees and costs.
By letter dated January 5, 2001, Costa was retained by Peter and Carol Jegou to advise on all phases of construction and "overall design, kitchen, tiles/marble, floors, fixtures, trim and details, painting, wood floors and landscaping." Compensation in the amount of $1.00 was to be paid upon execution of the agreement; the arrangement was acceptable to Costa because she was to receive fifty percent of the profits from the construction. Work on the project commenced in March 2002, but in December 2002 the contractor was discharged before the work was completed. The original contract price was $1,501,500. According to Costa, all but $558,000 was paid to the first contractor. According to Mr. Jegou, the balance due was $508,000.
A second contractor was retained to complete the work for the balance due on the original contract. According to Mr. Jegou, the new contractor was to share fifty percent of the profit from the remainder of the project with Costa. During the second stage of the project, some contractors were paid by Costa through an account in her name to be funded by the Jegous and other contractors and vendors were paid by the Jegous. According to Costa, on occasion the account funded by the Jegous did not have sufficient funds, and as a consequence she paid a total of $150,000 from her personal accounts. Her records of those expenditures were incomplete because documentation was lost in a fire that destroyed her car on May 2, 2003.
In June 2003, the Jegous moved into their new home under a temporary certificate of occupancy; the permanent certificate was issued that fall. Costa, however, continued to provide services as an interior decorator after the Jegous took occupancy. Subject to the Jegous' approval, she selected furnishings, china and other decorative items, which she brought to their home. They purchased some and rejected others. On occasion, Costa gave the Jegous items she selected for their home as gifts.
According to the Jegous, they relied on Costa in selecting their furnishings. They explained that Costa, who was born and educated in Switzerland, had told them she grew up with and lived with her family's antiques. She said she traded in antiques on a regular basis in Europe and had many connections in Europe and the United States. In addition, she had taken courses in restoration and, due to her expertise, had done restoration work for Sotheby's and appraised and authenticated artifacts for an insurance company. There was no evidence that any of those representations were false.
The Jegous further testified that Costa advised them that their home furnishings should include several "very select pieces" - antiques and antiquities, which "would increase in value." Costa told them the pieces "would be a good investment" and their home "deserved... special antique pieces." Mr. Jegou recalled a discussion about a dining room table: Costa said, "I found this antique table from Switzerland that you absolutely have to have. It's an heirloom, it's an antique, it's worth an incredible amount of money, it's a great investment."
Mr. Jegou could not recall what he paid for the table. He had two checks, one for $11,600 and one for $23,532. The documentation, an invoice submitted with the check for $23,532, indicated that the Jegous were charged $8500 for the table, but Mr. Jegou gave no testimony relevant to the invoice or the price stated therein. There was no other testimony about the price paid by the Jegous for any piece of furniture, fixture, china, glassware, statue or painting purchased through Costa.
According to Mrs. Jegou, in September 2003 she was working with an insurer and needed information about the value of the items selected by Costa. The Jegous had asked Costa to provide receipts and certificates of authenticity related to the furnishings in the past but had not obtained them. When Costa came to her home on September 29, 2003, Mrs. Jegou, using her computer, typed a list as Costa dictated. That list does not include the price the Jegous paid for the objects. It describes thirty-one items and an "appraisal" of their value. When Mrs. Jegou met with the ...