A Baldwin County jury awarded the former owner of Fairhope’s Fly Creek Cafe a $2,112,000 judgment Oct. 15, about one year after her landlord forced the restaurant to close over alleged lease violations. Richard Corrigan, who worked for the plaintiff alongside lead attorney Joe Sullivan, said the jury on the case “spoke and spoke loudly” with its verdict.
Last September, Trish Niemeyer, who operated the restaurant under the name Elliegator LLC, was told that she violated multiple terms of her lease such as becoming a live music venue, not designating overflow parking, allowing access to the restaurant by boat and allowing people to swim off the dock.
When she did not respond to an eviction notice within the statutory amount of time, Niemeyer was served with an unlawful detainer complaint and ordered off the property by Oct. 31, 2012. Niemeyer, who protested and said she was being painted in a false light nevertheless agreed, and the restaurant has been closed ever since.
Corrigan said there were “a bunch of technical details in the case,” but after a year of depositions and discovery and a week-long trial, the jury’s award was based on findings of unlawful breach of lease, wrongful conversion of the trade name “Fly Creek Cafe” and wrongful eviction. The judgment for the latter two claims included $525,000 in compensatory damages and $1,573,000 in punitive damages, while the defendant was also hit with a $12,000 penalty for wrongful eviction.
The defendant’s counterclaim of defamation was also accepted by the jury, but only awarded $1.
The property where both the restaurant facility and a neighboring marina sit is owned by Kathleen and Craig Sahlstrom of Rockford Ill., where Craig Sahlstrom is a circuit court judge. They own the property under the name Creekside Development Corp.
According to Corrigan, Niemeyer testified that the landowner’s inquiry into terms of her lease began only after Niemeyer entertained an offer to sell the rights to the restaurant and the landowners became aware of its value.
“That’s when all these issues took place,” he said. “It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever seen and the shame of it is they took a very nice, family-oriented restaurant away from the community.”
At the time, the cafe was the only year-round waterfront restaurant on the Eastern Shore south of the causeway.
Romaine Scott, a Daphne-based attorney who represented Creekside Development, could only say, “the jury verdict was disappointing, and we are not done yet,” but could not disclose any legal strategy going forward, or plans for the now-vacant restaurant.
Corrigan said he wasn’t aware of any pending appeal of the judgment or of Niemeyer opening another restaurant elsewhere.
“She put as much work into this case as she put into Fly Creek Café, and it took a lot out of her,” he said. “We hope it’s behind us. Jury verdicts are rarely overturned.”
Updated to include information regarding the defendant’s counterclaim.