Turf War erupts as old friends fall out: Turner Tree and Dieter's Sod sue one another

Two old friends fall out and end up in civil court

sfrater@bradenton.comMarch 5, 2013 

MANATEE -- To call it a turf war is a bit of an understatement.

For 30 years, Darrell Turner and Dieter Zoellner agree they were "good friends" who did a lot of business together. Turner Tree and Landscape was even Zoellner's employer before Zoellner and his wife, Carole, established Dieter's Sod Service, Inc. about two decades ago.

They are friends "no more" says Zoellner since Turner filed a civil lawsuit against his company, seeking more than $87,000 in damages plus an additional $14,267 in attorneys' fees. Zoellner "in reaction" countersued, claiming Turner owes his company $41,206 "for service charges on invoices not paid on time."

It doesn't help that both companies were hit hard during the great recession -- suffering almost identical 40 percent revenue declines -- and have not yet recovered to pre-recession profit levels.

Turner believes that Dieter Sod overcharged him on more than 40 projects over the past three years, while Zoellner claims that Turner isn't correctly calculating the disputed projects and that he was paid late on various jobs over the last five years.

Since the lawsuits were filed last year, Dieter's Sod recapitalized with a new majority partner and announced expansion plans into landscaping, a core Turner service.

Turner currently employs about 100 people and generates $9 million in annual revenues "down from about $15 million" before the real estate slump.

Dieter, with about 22 employees and 10 daily laborers, expects 2013 sales of about $4.5 million, down from a peak of $7.5 million.

Turner estimated his company has done "about $2.7 million in business with Dieter since 2009."

The original Turner lawsuit, filed in Manatee County Court last year, was moved to Manatee Circuit Court at Zoellner's request in October.

The suit alleges that Dieter's Sod, hired by Turner to provide residential and commercial sod and seeding installation, "intentionally provided less square footage of sod and seeding than promised on more than 40 different projects over the past three years."

"We have reviewed the underlying documentation of Turner Tree's claim and are confident that Turner Tree will prevail against Dieter's Sod Service," Turner's attorney, Peter J. Mackey of Bradenton, said.

Mackey added that the counterclaims for late payments are "ridiculous," and comes from Zoellner "going back and calculating how many days payment on invoices was greater than 30 days from the alleged receipt by Turner," Mackey said.

"There was never one complaint or objection ever raised by Dieter Sod concerning payment of the invoices."

Since the suit, Mackey said, Zoellner has tacked on an 18 percent late fee for any invoice paid after 30 days.

Turner said in a pressrelease that "business ethics (sic) is very important to Turner Tree and that thealleged lack of ethical be-havior by Dieter Sod cameto light after it asked Turner Tree to pay a $5,800 cost overrun" in May 2012 on Lost Creek, a Lakewood Ranch apartment complex project.

Turner said Monday his company paid the cost overrun but then re-measured the project and found the measurements proved "that Turner Tree had been overcharged by Dieter's Sod Service."

The dispute at Lost Creek prompted Turner "to review other projects completed by Dieter's Sod for Turner Tree over the last three years and this appeared to be a pattern of conduct," Turner said. "The results have been shocking."

Bradenton attorney Mark Nelson, who represents Zoellner, says the claims are "unfounded."

"It's analogous to a carpet layer who lays 2,000 square feet of carpet in a home, of course more than that amount would be used, due to wastage and remnants" on the job, Nelson said.

Turner said he filed suit only after "four failed settlement attempts" with Zoellner.

Zoellner also says he has tried to settle the matter out of court, "we have tried to sit down and have a negotiation several times" to no avail, he said.

In January, months after the lawsuits were filed, Zoellner, "sixty-nine years old, and getting ready for retirement," sold 75 percent of his business to the Bay Breeze Group, a Hillsborough County agricultural concern, which he estimates is "ten times larger than my company."

The company's name was promptly changed to Dieter's Sod and Landscaping reflecting its new services, which more directly compete with Turner.

The new majority owner's group includes Bay Breeze Farms Inc.; Celegration Turf, a producer of sod, fruits and vegetables; Vigiron, a producer of iron-rich fertilizers; and Envirolok of Florida, a distributor of vegetated retaining wall systems for erosion control.

When the new partnership with Bay Breeze was announced, Zoellner said, "the expansion into the landscape services market is a natural progression allowing us to offer all inclusive, one-stop shopping for our customers."

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