ARGUED: November 29, 2011
Appeal from the order of Commonwealth Court at No. 789 CD 2009 dated 09-01-2010 affirming the order of Bucks County Court of Common Pleas, Civil Division, at No. 96-08883-22-6 dated 03-31-2009.
CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.
MR. EAKIN JUSTICE
Appellant appeals the Commonwealth Court's order affirming the trial court's ruling that testimony regarding a bona fide offer and the underlying offer letter itself could be introduced into evidence in a condemnation valuation trial. We affirm.
Appellees owned a 166-acre farm in Lower Makefield Township. On December 6, 1996, appellant condemned the property in order to build a public golf course. Appellees filed preliminary objections challenging the validity of using eminent domain for such a purpose. That issue was eventually appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which found the taking was for a legitimate public use. A Board of View determined the value of the property was $3, 990, 000. As the parties were unable to agree on damages, the matter proceeded to a jury trial for a calculation of the property's value.
The trial lasted six days. A total of 11 witnesses were called, one of whom was appellee Chester Dalgewicz. Mr. Dalgewicz testified regarding the farm's history and the interest shown by several developers in purchasing the property due to its size and proximity to Interstate 95. He described some of the offers received both before and after the property was condemned, including a 1995 agreement of sale with Ryland Homes for $5.1 million, and a 1998 sales agreement with Toll Brothers for $7 million, contingent upon the condemnation being overturned.
During Mr. Dalgewicz's testimony, he described a December, 1998 written offer from Pulte Homes, Inc., including the $8 million offer price; the offer letter was also introduced into evidence. Appellant objected, reiterating objections made in its motion in limine, arguing the offer was inadmissible as it did not result in a sales agreement and any testimony concerning the offer price would be irrelevant and prejudicial. The trial court overruled the objection, relying on its decision denying the motion in limine, and further explained it would be appropriate to "let in what was going on with this piece of land in terms of developers from a reasonable time before to a reasonable time after the taking." N.T. Trial, 11/18/08, at 31. The court observed the Township could cross-examine Mr. Dalgewicz on the nature of the offer, and that its evidentiary value was "something that should be argued to the jury[.]" Id., at 31-32. The jury determined the fair market value of the property was $5, 850, 000. Appellant filed post-trial motions, alleging the trial court erred in admitting the Pulte offer; the trial court denied the motions. In its opinion denying post-trial relief, the trial court held the offer was admissible to prove the property was highly sought after by developers, and testimony concerning the offer was admissible because concerns regarding hearsay and the abstract nature of offers were not present.
On appeal, the Commonwealth Court affirmed, holding the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the Pulte offer. The court held that while case law suggests mere offers generally should not be admitted into evidence, the underlying rationale for such a prohibition was not present here. The court noted both parties stipulated to the authenticity of the Pulte offer, and the offer was introduced merely to show the reasonableness of the Toll Brothers agreement; thus, there were no hearsay concerns. While reiterating the general rule, the court crafted a narrow exception where "a sufficient foundation was laid to establish that the offer was made in good faith, by a party acquainted with the value of the [p]roperty, and of sufficient intention and ability to pay" so as to make it a bona fide offer and, therefore, admissible. Lower Makefield Twp. v. Lands of Dalgewicz, 4 A.3d 1114, 1120 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010). Furthermore, the Commonwealth Court found appellant could not show it was prejudiced by the trial court's allowance of the Pulte offer into evidence because the jury award was over $2 million less than the offer, and the information contained in the offer was established by other competent evidence.
Appellant petitioned for allowance of appeal, which we granted, limited to the following issues:
a. Whether a bona fide offer to purchase property subject to condemnation, made within a reasonable time of condemnation, may be admitted to prove the fair market value of the property.
b. Whether the Commonwealth Court departed from the harmless error standard by requiring the Township to show with certainty that the trial court's evidentiary errors affected the verdict.
Lower Makefield Twp. v. Lands of Dalgewicz, 16 A.3d 500 (Pa. 2011) (per curiam). The first issue requires this Court to determine whether the trial court committed an error of law or abused its discretion; therefore, our scope of review is plenary, and our standard of review is de novo. See Pocono Manor Investors, LP v. Pa. Gaming Control Bd., 927 A.2d 209, 216 (Pa. 2007).
Like the Commonwealth Court and the trial court, for the reasons given below, we find the traditional concerns over relevancy and the speculative nature of offers was not present here. However, the Commonwealth Court's creation of an exception to the old rule concerning admissibility of offers is unnecessary in light of the General Assembly's ...