Skills learnt as immigrants by Vietnamese born Tien Nguyen and Tuoi Dang in the South Australian border region of Renmark were the foundation of their plan for a new wine making venture in Queensland.

In 2002, S.A. vintner Salvatore Condo approached them – his former vine workers – to canvass their interest in his Brisbane Valley property at Esk.

When Tien and Tuoi – to whose sister Mr Condo’s son was married – explained they did not have the farm’s $280k ask price, the seller suggested an arrangement that they establish the 10 acre vineyard in exchange for a half share of the property and business.

But with only a handshake to go on, the exact terms of the arrangement – or lack of them – ultimately became the source of dispute.

The croppers contended it was agreed that money spent by them to cultivate vines and on maintenance & improvements, be credited to their side of the ledger in reduction of the $140k due for the half share of the advertised sale price.

Did the deal include the residence on the property? Were they entitled to reside there rent free in the interim? Were they obliged to account for the proceeds of sale of vegetables harvested in greenhouses they built?

These were but some of the many issues Brisbane’s Supreme Court was asked to decide when Tien and Tuoi sought its help to compel the Condos to transfer half the farm to them after having made contributions and payments they claim totaled $218k.

They ceased working on the farm in December 2006 and filed their lawsuit in 2007. It followed a very leisurely maturation until the court uncorked its decision this month.

The court was satisfied that they would not have provided funds and all their effort unless there were an arrangement they receive a half interest on payment of $140k.

Justice Deborah Mullins also accepted that Tien and Tuoi’s total cash contribution – not including other payments they made for rates and the owners’ monthly mortgage payments – was $218k.

Ruling on the claim to a “beneficial interest” in the land, Justice Mullins noted they had “acted to their detriment and relying on the promise of the defendants to transfer one half interest from and that it is unconscionable for the defendants to deny they are entitled to remedy”.

Despite the absence of a written agreement, she ruled that the doctrine “equitable estoppel” – when one party makes a legally unenforceable promise to grant an interest in land that induces the other to act in reliance on the promise – applied in this case.

She ordered a “charge” against the property of $375k being the total “equitable compensation” due (inclusive of $157k interest) so that when sold, the couple can collect.

Nguyen & Anor v Condo & Anor [2014] QSC 239 Mullins J published 01/10/2014


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