Can a handshake be considered a binding contract in Florida?

JordanPascaleLogoEarlier this month, Florida Power and Light (FPL) was issued a stunning legal defeat when a $1.5 million dollar judgment was issued against the company for breaking a handshake agreement for the purchase of real estate.  A Palm Beach County jury handed down the decision after finding that the energy giant failed to pay a commission to the realtor who initially informing them of the available tract of land for development.  According to the court file, the Plaintiff and a representative of FPL met at a Parent’s Weekend function their respective children’s university where they discussed the availability of a tract of land for purchase by the company and the subsequent commission to be paid to the Plaintiff should FPL indeed purchase the land.  Subsequently, FPL purchased the land and did not honor the commission, culminating in the court’s decision which provides a textbook example of the validity of handshake/verbal agreements and the difficulty encountered when trying to enforce them in court.

Although there are certain instances where only a written contract is enforceable, for a contract to be valid in the State of Florida, there must be an offer and an acceptance of that offer in exchange for consideration — i.e., money, services or goods that have value — and this includes handshake agreements.  Obviously, the difficulty in court enforcement of a handshake agreement lies with the Plaintiff, who must establish the burden of proof required to establish an agreement was ever present in the first place.  In most situations, a verbal contract is a binary discussion between two parties and there are no additional witnesses to the agreement.  In this matter, the Plaintiff was fortunate to have made the agreement in a very public setting that afforded a number of witnesses, all of whom had to be deposed.  Additionally, the Plaintiff was able to provide phone and email records to indicate his attempts to contact the FPL representative on this very matter.  These proved to be compelling verifications of the Plaintiff’s argument in the eyes of the jury.

Given the private nature of most handshake agreements, proving them in court is an uphill battle, but the above example is definitive proof that even major corporations can run afoul of contract law in certain situations.  The importance of corroborating witnesses is plainly evident — in the case of written agreements the witness is the contract itself, but in the case of a handshake agreement one must rely on additional parties to prove its existence.  At Jordan + Pascale we stress the importance of written agreements — be it a lease, purchase/sales contract, invoice for services, etc., the safest route is to get everything in writing and agree to nothing unless it is written on the page.  However, if you believe you have been wronged in the execution of a handshake agreement, we urge you to contact our office to discuss the matter.  Here at Jordan + Pascale, we pride ourselves on our ability to protect and advocate on behalf of our clients and to relentlessly pursue their interests — it’s what makes us South Florida’s premier real estate law firm!  Call us for a consultation and see what we can do for you!