Jurors begin deliberating in Bullock trial
Seven weeks of testimony to consider in case that pits Austin homebuilder against actress
By Claire Osborn
Friday, October 8, 2004
After nearly seven weeks of testimony, jurors will begin deliberating today on who is to blame for the construction problems in a house overlooking Lake Austin that actress Sandra Bullock had built but never could occupy.
The jurors will have to consider 48 questions before reaching a verdict, including whether a contract between Austin home builder Benny Daneshjou and Bullock was breached, whether labor and material costs were inflated and whether the federal law against racketeering was violated.
One of Bullock's lawyers said in his closing arguments Thursday that Daneshjou is responsible for $4 million in repairs needed to the house on River Hills Road. Daneshjou's company built Bullock's 10,000-square-foot house, which was never finished. Witnesses testified during the trial that the house had problems including water damage, faulty framing on the roof, wiring within the drywall that was too small and rips in the masonry.
One of Daneshjou's lawyers said in closing arguments that former project manager David Shrum and most of the subcontractors who worked on the job are at fault.
Shrum's lawyer, who also presented a closing argument, said his client should not be blamed for anything that went wrong.
The legal troubles began after Daneshjou sued Bullock and her father, John Bullock, in 2001 for unpaid labor and architectural fees. Daneshjou also sued Shrum. Bullock countersued Daneshjou, claiming shoddy work and excessive charges for labor.
Robert MacInnes, one of Daneshjou's lawyers, reminded jurors Thursday that they had promised when selected that they could be impartial in a case involving a famous person versus an "Iranian builder with an accent."
John Bullock had work stopped on the house in 1999 and hired an expert who reported that the house needed repairs, MacInnes said. Instead of letting Daneshjou's company make the repairs, the Bullocks sent a letter to Daneshjou demanding $8 million, MacInnes said.
"This was a very difficult house to build with the personalities involved," MacInnes said. "These are people used to getting what they want, when they want and how they want."
The Bullocks complained about Daneshjou's 10 percent overhead fees but never questioned them while paying the bills during construction, MacInnes said. The fees were clearly marked on the bills, he said.
MacInnes then shifted the blame for the construction flaws to Shrum, saying that he was responsible for supervising the subcontractors.
Experts testified that the repairs can be completed for less than $1 million, MacInnes said. He also said that Daneshjou did not violate the federal law against racketeering by sending fraudulent bills through the mail to the Bullocks' accountant in California. The bills were not fraudulent and were faxed, he said.
However, Walter Mizell, one of the Bullocks' attorneys, said the bills were fraudulent and sent by FedEx.
"There was a conscious pattern of behavior established here to get the client in the door and just ratchet up the price mercilessly," Mizell said.
Sandra Bullock paid about $6.5 million for the house, but an insurance company valued it at $3.1 million, he said. Mizell asked the jurors to award the Bullocks $3.3 million for demolition and reconstruction. Part of the roof framing is lying against the chimney, and there are substantial areas within the drywall where it can't be determined whether fireblocking was built, Mizell said. Daneshjou also owes Sandra Bullock $2.7 million for the bills that she paid but that Daneshjou's company could not substantiate, Mizell said.
Shrum's lawyer, John Price, said Shrum was responsible for coordinating the construction but was not an expert in plumbing, roofing or masonry. Shrum was not responsible for hiring the subcontractors or buying the materials for the job, Price said. He was hired to complete a job in five months that should have taken a year, Price said: "He's been unjustly accused."