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Dewey v. Wentland: Buyers' Lawsuit Fails to Make Hay

Wyoming's highest court has considered numerous allegations made by buyers against sellers and their real estate salesperson, based on a transaction involving the leasing of a cattle ranch with the option to purchase.

Richard and Doris Wentland ("Sellers") listed their cattle ranch for sale with real estate licensee Harry Barnett ("Salesperson"). After viewing the property three times, John and Elizabeth Dewey ("Buyers") entered into a purported "lease/purchase" agreement with the Sellers. The purchase contract was contingent on the Buyers obtaining financing for the purchase of the property, and also contained a provision that the Buyers would lease the Sellers' property if their own property had not sold, with the lease proceeds applied to the purchase price. Since their property had apparently not sold, the Buyers began leasing the Sellers' ranch.

After the Buyers took possession of the property, they allegedly encountered numerous problems on the Sellers' property. Their main allegation centered on the fact that the Sellers did not leave enough first cut hay for the Buyers to winter their cattle, which they claimed the Sellers had promised to do. The Buyers filed a lien against the property for the amount of money they allegedly spent purchasing hay and also notified the Sellers that they would not be purchasing the property. The Sellers filed a lawsuit contesting the lien, and also filed a counterclaim against the Buyers seeking specific performance of the purchase agreement. The Buyers then added additional allegations to their lawsuit against both the Sellers and the Salesperson for various alleged misrepresentations.

In a series of rulings and an eventual jury verdict, the trial court ruled in favor of the Sellers and the Salesperson on all of the allegations made by the Buyers except for the allegations concerning the hay. The jury awarded the Sellers approximately $30,000 in damages for the Buyers' failure to make payments under the lease and also awarded the Buyers approximately $10,000 for the failure of the Sellers to leave enough hay for the Buyers. The hay award was stricken by the trial court on the ground that the Buyers had failed to provide adequate evidence in support of their damages. The jury found that the contract between the parties was not a binding purchase agreement and so ruled in favor of the Buyers on the Sellers' counterclaim. Both parties appealed.

The Supreme Court of Wyoming affirmed all of the rulings by the trial court. The court first considered the negligent misrepresentation allegations made against the Sellers and the Salesperson as well as the intentional misrepresentation allegations made against the Sellers. The court found that the standard for both kinds of misrepresentations are essentially identical, with the only difference being the standard of proof. A party alleging a misrepresentation must show that a party supplied false information to another party which benefited the party making the statement, and that this information was justifiably relied upon by another party, causing damage to the other party.

The Buyers claimed that misrepresentations were made concerning the property's water shares, the property's size, the amount of acreage that could be put into production, and the amount of cows that currently resided on the property. All of these allegations were based on the information sheet that the Buyers received from the Salesperson. The court found that the Buyers had failed to produce any evidence which contradicted the evidence produced by the Sellers. Additionally, the court rejected the Buyers argument that in Wyoming, the statement that there were 175 cow/calf pairs was commonly understood to refer to 175 pairs, or 350 total livestock. The court found that the Buyers could not justifiably have relied on this claim because they admitted they had visited the property and only seen about 160 cows and calves during their three visits. Thus, the court ruled in favor of the Salesperson and the Sellers on the misrepresentation allegations concerning information on the property's information sheet.

The Buyers also alleged that the Salesperson made various false oral representations during the Buyers' visits to the property. Once again, the court found that the Buyers had failed to come forward with any evidence in support of its claims. In particular, the court found that the Buyers had failed to show that the Sellers had any knowledge of problems with the property's septic system and so therefore the Buyers could not allege that there was any sort of misrepresentation concerning the property's septic system. The court also ruled in favor of the Sellers and Salesperson for overstating the amount of land which was part of a state lease. The court found that the Buyers had conducted their own investigation into the amount of land under state lease, and therefore could not have justifiably relied on the misstatements by the Sellers and Salesperson. Thus, the court ruled in favor of the Sellers and the Salesperson on all of the misrepresentation allegations made by the Buyers.

Next, the court considered the various other points raised by the parties in their appeals. First, the court affirmed the trial court's striking the jury's award of damages for the Sellers failure to provide hay. The court found that the only evidence offered by the Buyers, a note stating that approximately $10,000 was spent "per John hay," failed to establish that this was the actual amount of money spent for hay. The court also agreed that the trial court properly rejected the Sellers' specific performance allegations. A court will only award a party specific performance when a binding agreement exists and the situation demands such relief. The court determined that this agreement ambiguous on many of its terms, and so could not be used to support an award for specific performance. Thus, the court affirmed all of the trial court's rulings.

Dewey v. Wentland, 38 P.3d 402 (Wyo. 2002).