Café Ruche loses lawsuit

A legal battle waged by Café Ruche, after the smell of oil from an underground storage tank caused the business to fold, is over.

Café Ruche lost its case against the town of Wilton, Wilton Center Development Limited Partnership, and Paragon Realty.

The town and realty companies prevailed on all counts. In addition, Café Ruche was ordered to pay $83,839.25 in damages.

The legal decision was handed down on Friday, Jan. 18, in Bridgeport Superior Court by Judge Anthony D. Truglia Jr., following a trial that was held last June.

The case began on May 31, 2016, when a lawsuit was filed by Café Ruche LLC, a Connecticut limited liability company, whose principal and CEO is Barbara Chopin of Weston.

Café Ruche sought monetary damages in excess of $15,000 and punitive damages, but neither was granted. Instead, Judge Truglia denied all the counts alleged in the complaint and directed the plaintiff to pay Paragon Realty in a counterclaim for costs it had incurred.

Something stinks

The court’s decision spells out the following facts and procedures in the case:

In 2014, Café Ruche, LLC entered into a lease agreement with Wilton Center Development Limited Partnership in order to operate a yoga studio and café in a building at 101 Ridgefield Road in Wilton Center in a space that had all its interior walls and ceilings removed.

The property is owned by the town of Wilton. In 1983, the town leased the property to the Faraca Co., which later assigned its rights to Wilton Center Development Limited Partnership (WCD). In 2015, WCD sold its rights in the lease to Paragon Realty, which became Café Ruche’s subsequent landlord.

The 3.41-acre property at 101 Ridgefield Road contains two buildings, the former school building (where Café Ruche was situated) and the Hubbard Building. The property was used as a school from 1928 to 1971. From 1978 to 1983, the property was used as office space for the town of Wilton Board of Education.

Following Café Ruche’s renovation of the empty space in December 2014, a yoga studio and café opened for business there on Jan. 2, 2015.

Four months later, operators of Café Ruche notified the landlord of a “paint-like” odor in the studio, which was also described as smelling like heating oil. They claimed customers said the smell was horrible, gave them headaches and made them sick.

In response, the landlord retained Langan environment and engineering consultants to investigate the cause of the odor. After opening part of a wall in the studio, Langan found three pipes that had been cut and some dripping oil.

A survey of the property was then conducted with ground-penetrating radar and revealed the pipes led to an old underground oil storage tank which was likely installed on the property in the 1920s.

In light of this discovery, on Nov. 23, 2015, Wilton’s health department order the café closed. The underground storage tank was decommissioned and the property was examined for oil contamination. The plaintiff then abandoned the premises and permanently closed its business.

Café Ruche, LLC then brought a lawsuit, alleging the landlord/defendant had breached its contract with the business by failing to keep the property in good repair and should have known about the storage tank. The plaintiff further alleged the landlord was responsible for cutting the pipes that caused the oil smell which hurt its business.

The defendants claimed that since the space was empty when the plaintiff renovated it, one of the plaintiff’s contractors must have cut the pipes and failed to cap them.

In its decision, the court found the plaintiff did not carry its burden of proof on the counts, including breach of contract. The court concluded there was no proof the defendant had prior knowledge about the underground storage tank and that a contractor for the plaintiff must have cut the pipes and failed to cap them when renovating the space, thus causing the oil smell in the studio.

In response to a counterclaim by the defendants, the court ordered the plaintiff to pay Paragon Realty $83,839.25 to cover the costs of investigating, testing, remediation and removal of potentially contaminated soil and concrete which were incurred as a result of the damage done by the plaintiff’s contractor.