Trailer Trashed

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"This will be part of your damages," Henderson says. It's part of routine conversation at the park now -- adding up what kind of damages will be assessed in the lawsuit. Any wrong that can be blamed on Cox, they say, will be added to the damages once they win the suit. When, for instance, a resident has to go to a coin-op because the park's laundry room is boarded up, that goes into that person's damages. Henderson alone figures her damages have reached $30,000 or more. "You know," she adds, "we've got damages up the ying yang."

While the suit could be years from concluding, the residents recently had two successes in court, something that has finally given them a bit of hope.

Shortly after Wes Cox took the stand to defend himself in a recent hearing on the residents' lawsuit, the judge issued him the kind of scolding teachers give misbehaving kindergartners. Circuit Judge Timothy McCarthy had already admonished him for talking out of turn, being combative with the residents' attorney, and for refusing to answer questions. But this rebuke was scathing. "Mr. Cox," the judge said sternly. "This is not the Jerry Springer Show. You have to behave yourself." As he did every time the judge admonished him, Cox rolled his eyes exaggeratedly toward the ceiling. He shifted in his seat and shook his head defiantly. His attitude didn't bode well for him that day.

Cox has already had one setback in the lawsuit. Another judge on the case issued an order requiring that Cox "expedite" the repairs to the electrical system. It was a major victory for the residents, but it's too early to tell if Cox will abide by the ruling.

The hearing on January 19 was to determine if Cox could evict his tenants and whether the residents should pay him rent while the lawsuit drags on. Two residents, Henderson and Johnston, testified first, telling of life without power and, for Henderson, without a working septic system.

Then came Cox. He wore a gray pinstriped suit that clung tightly to his six-foot, two-inch frame and a blue patterned tie over a white dress shirt. He was immediately combative. He argued that residents ought to use extension cords to run appliances, even though it may not meet code and could be a fire hazard. He claimed those without power were just trying to get money out of him. "There's no excuse for not having [working appliances] unless you want to play poor to sue the poor landlord," he said.

The residents' pro bono attorney, Cathy Lively of Lake Worth, asked Cox if he thought residents could live a normal life with half or no power in their trailers.

"I don't believe they've ever lived a normal life, to tell you the truth," Cox responded.

"Why is that?"

"Because they do bizarre things," the landlord explained.

Cox claimed that if he made the repairs to the electrical lines, he'd have to raise rates to pay for it. "The poor residents who I've been helping with low rent all these years wouldn't be better off in the long run," he said.

The judge asked Cox several times if he knew how many tenants were without power or sewer service. Cox said he hadn't taken a survey. He had left flyers on the residents' doors after the storm, but only a few returned them, he claimed. "I have no idea," Cox insisted. "As far as I know they all have power." But pressed further, Cox admitted that at least one trailer was without power entirely and several others had only partial power. In truth, 15 tenants have joined the lawsuit and claim to be without all or some electricity, and at least a half-dozen more have declined to sue.

Even when Cox wasn't on the stand, he met the judge's wrath. Several times, the judge told Cox to stop talking loudly into his attorney's ear. "I don't know if you learned to whisper in a sawmill or what," the judge said.

After Cox's poor performance, Lively asked the judge to cut the resident's rent in half. McCarthy, at first, seemed to think the residents hadn't proven their case. The judge explained that the residents had provided sufficient evidence that they've gone through hardships; their attorney argued that could not all be quantified. They needed a court-appointed expert to set a reasonable rate, the judge said.

"How do you get to 50 percent?" the judge asked Lively.

"I know," Lively admitted. "It's not scientific."

Finally, the judge, perhaps unimpressed by Cox's Springer-like performance, agreed. He ordered the residents to pay Cox half of the rent, and to deposit the other half with the court until the end of the lawsuit. More importantly, he also forbid Cox from evicting them. It seemed to be a resounding victory.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton