Legal Files” previously reported (May 2014, p. 38) about a lawsuit filed by Domenico Idoni concerning the “Real McCoy” Corvette. This March, the lawsuit came to an end, with judgment entered in favor of Chuck Ungurean, the owner of the Corvette.
The Real McCoy is a 1956 Chevrolet Corvette SR prototype that Chevrolet built to race. John Finch ran it in the 1956 12 Hours of Sebring, finishing 1st in class and 9th overall. That victory cemented the Corvette’s position as a race car — and encouraged Chevrolet to continue building the model.
The trial court’s summary of the case states that the current owner, Chuck Ungurean, entered the car in the January 25, 2014, Mecum auction in Kissimmee, FL.
Prior to the auction, Idoni approached Ungurean and explained that a variety of racing parts that belonged to him had wrongly been incorporated into the car when it was restored. He demanded either the return of the parts or 50% of the auction proceeds. When Ungurean refused, Idoni filed suit.
Ungurean and Mecum went forward with the auction in spite of the lawsuit. Bidding fell far short of the $3 million reserve, but Mecum had committed to buy the car for $2.3 million if the bidding failed to reach that amount, so Ungurean lifted the reserve, hoping to spur bidding. That failed, and the car was hammered sold at $2.3 million to an anonymous bidder — Mecum. However, Mecum later refused to complete the purchase and returned the car to Ungurean.
The claims and legal procedure
Idoni sued to recover his parts — or to be paid for their value. Ungurean filed counterclaims against Idoni, asking the court to rule that Idoni didn’t own anything on the car — and to award damages against Idoni for killing his auction sale.
All of these claims came to a decision on motions for summary judgment. To understand what that is, we have to consider what court trials are all about.
In any lawsuit, there are two fundamental questions:
Just exactly what happened here?
What legal consequences stem from whatever happened?
Trials are all about figuring out what happened. The litigants are allowed to call witnesses and present documentary evidence in an effort to explain the facts of the case. Usually, their stories differ — for example, one driver says the light was green and the other says it was red. The conflicting evidence has to be heard, considered and weighed, and the judge or jury has to determine just what actually happened.
In the Real McCoy case, there was no dispute about what happened. The two stories did not conflict, so there was no need to go through the process of a trial to hear witnesses and consider documents. All that needed to be done was to determine the legal consequences of the undisputed facts.
In such a situation, the parties make their legal arguments to the judge, and the judge decides who wins. No jury is needed because there are no facts that need to be determined by weighing evidence, which is a jury’s normal function. This judge decision process is called summary judgment, which both sides requested in their favor.
Time kills claims
The primary issue was the effect of time. As it turned out, Idoni had seen the Real McCoy in 2005 when it was displayed at then-owner Harry Yeaggy’s museum. Idoni recognized that his parts were on the car, but he never said anything to Yeaggy. Idoni offered no explanation for that.
Yeaggy sold the Real McCoy to Ungurean about six years later. Ungurean had no idea about Idoni’s claim that his parts were on the car.
Two more years later, right after Idoni had learned that the car was going to be sold at the Mecum auction, he approached Ungurean and presented his claims for the first time. Ungurean claimed that Idoni had lost his rights by waiting too many years to file suit.
“Legal Files” has explained numerous times that one never loses one’s ownership of stolen property because, under the law, the thief is unable to pass good title. We’ve seen several examples of stolen cars that are reunited with their owners many years later. In that sense, there is no statute of limitations that terminates the owner’s rights. While that is true, this case presented a different twist on the subject.
Ungurean claimed that the clock started ticking on Idoni’s claims in 2005, when Idoni saw the car at Yeaggy’s museum and realized that his parts were in it. By waiting until 2014 to file suit, he had lost his right to sue.
The precise claims were that either or both of Florida’s four-year statute of limitations and a legal doctrine called laches prevented Idoni from bringing the lawsuit. The statute of limitations analysis is usually rather straightforward. You just count days, and when too many pass, it’s over. There are very few exceptions, and none were present here.
Laches is similar to a statute of limitations, but is less time-precise and not very specific. The concept is that if you know you have a claim but fail to bring suit for an unreasonably long period of time — and the delay is prejudicial to the other party — laches can bar the claim even if the statute of limitations doesn’t.
Say, for example, you read in SCM that Publisher Martin just bought your long-ago stolen Alfa. Rather than contact him right away, you decide to sit back and wait, as everyone knows that Martin will soon spend enormous amounts of money to restore the car whether he really should or not.
Once it comes out of the restoration, you file suit to recover your car. Laches would prevent you from suing even if the statute of limitations has not yet run — you sat back while an innocent party caused himself financial loss believing that he owned the car.
But let’s change the facts — say you drove right over to your attorney’s office to file suit but got into a bad crash along the way. You were in a hospital bed comatose for months, but you filed suit soon after you had recovered. Laches would not apply, as you did not knowingly sit on your rights.
In this case, Idoni knew he had claims in 2005 but did nothing. He knew that an innocent purchaser — Ungurean — was unaware of the claims, and he still did nothing. Idoni knew who stole the parts, but he never brought suit against the thief. Idoni sat on his rights and let innocent people become damaged. The court ruled that laches and the statute of limitations both applied, and Idoni lost.
No payday for seller
Ungurean lost his claim for damages because Idoni interfered with the auction sale. The court reasoned that the auction failed because the bidding failed to reach the reserve, and there was no proof that Idoni had done anything to cause that.
Idoni did scuttle the back-up sale to Mecum. However, he did that by filing his lawsuit, which caused Mecum to back away because of the ensuing questions about ownership. Under Florida law, a plaintiff is given absolute immunity for the outside consequences of anything that occurs in litigation, so Ungurean had no claim against Idoni for that.
It ain’t over
Idoni did not appeal the decision. However, he says, “It ain’t over.”
According to Idoni, the title to the Real McCoy traces to a bill of sale issued in Alabama through a title service company.
Say you have lost or never had — and can’t replace — a car’s title. To fix that, you transfer ownership of the car to the title service through a bill of sale. The title service then applies for a registration (they don’t issue certificates of title on older cars) in Alabama.
Alabama conducts a records search and, if all comes up clear, they register it to the title service company, which then transfers ownership of the car back to you with a bill of sale. You take that and the Alabama registration to your state’s DMV as a newly purchased car, and they issue you a new certificate of title. This is euphemistically referred to as “title washing,” since some use this process to cleanse salvage titles.
Idoni believes it is surprising that Alabama registered the car when there was a valid, existing Florida title for the car.
While the litigation was pending, the original certificate of title and the original VIN plate came up for sale on Craigslist. Idoni stated that he contacted the purchaser and made a deal to acquire them from him, but Ungurean and his agents convinced the state of Florida DMV that the title and VIN plate were counterfeit.
Idoni is working on clearing that up, and he is confident that he will end up the owner of the Real McCoy on the basis that the title to the car was genuine and had never been transferred by its previous registered owner.
We’ll have to stay tuned for the next chapter in this fascinating case. ♦
John Draneas is an attorney in Oregon. His comments are general in nature and are not intended to substitute for consultation with an attorney. He can be reached through www.draneaslaw.com.