Wednesday 28 September 2016

The curse of Sorrento House strikes again

Bought for £6m with €13m spent on restoration, the "unlucky" house has been jinxed in legal actions

Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30

Sorrento House
Sorrento House
Sorrento Terrace
Loughlan Quinn
Tom Day

"Sure I'll throw in another €100,000," said solicitor Michael O'Gorman with a theatrical flourish as a bidding war opened up for the most sought after house in Dublin, No 1, Sorrento Terrace.

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It was mid-summer 1998 and Mr O'Gorman from top five legal firm A&L Goodbody was determined to secure the prize on behalf of a mystery client.

Gavel poised, Lisney's auctioneer Tom Day was the "fair play man" as the last two buyers in the ring slugged it out.

Mr O'Gorman was up against another solicitor, Hugh Carty, also acting on behalf of a client who was at the other end of a telephone line directing his agent to make one more bid.

This was boxing for financial heavyweights with no bid less than £100k.

Auctioneer Tom Day brought the hammer down with a resounding smack in favour of Mr O'Gorman - £5.9m - plus £531,000 in stamp duty. The £6m-plus sale (tax included) was trumpeted as proof positive that the Dublin property market had gone mad.

The reluctant seller, Mrs Dorothy Lavery, who was in her 90s and intent on downsizing, nevertheless cracked open the champagne with her family.

Celebrating too were the new owners who, it was later revealed, were Dubliner Terry Coleman and his wife Anita who bought it using a British Virgin Islands (BVI) Trust, which they control, called Agulhas Resources Inc. They beat the disappointed under bidder Lochlann Quinn, then chairman of AIB, with a final £100k bid.

Mr Coleman, a discreet, some might say secretive, Manchester-based businessman, began his career at Jefferson Smurfit before branching out and making millions fitting Scorpion car alarms - considered the industry standard at the time - to hundreds of thousands of cars across Britain on behalf of the major motor manufacturers.

Some 17 years after he bought the house and extensively remodelled and extended it, spending an additional €13m, the Victorian pile on 1.5 acres of seaside garden overlooking Killiney Bay is in the headlines again.

Mr Coleman's Dublin Bay retreat has now been dubbed the "unluckiest" house in Ireland, having been the subject of eight legal cases since Mr Coleman purchased it.

The complex and protracted litigation has produced enough affidavits to dry line the walls of the four-storey mansion. The attic might have been insulated using the reams of evidence from expert witnesses called by various litigants.

Last week, the High Court heard details of the latest legal salvoes as it emerged the house is once again on the market.

The asking price now is a "modest" €12m after a proposed sale for €22m to retired solicitor and prolific property investor Brian O'Donnell did not proceed.

The High Court was told that latest litigation concerning No 1 Sorrento Terrace has been brought against legal firm A&L Goodbody, alleging professional negligence in relation to its handling of litigation and insurance issues concerning the property.

It was barrister Rossa Fanning who dubbed No 1 as the "unluckiest" house in Ireland after revealing the extent of legal actions surrounding the house over the last decade.

Mr Fanning is representing the legal firm in the latest case involving the Dalkey house, designed by the 19th Century architect Frederick Darley, who also designed Straffan House - now the luxury hotel at the heart of Michael Smurfit's K Club.

There is a "full defence" to those claims, he told the court.

The proceedings have been brought by Mr and Mrs Coleman and their BVI entity, Agulhas Resources Inc.

It was also stated the Colemans are beneficiaries of the trust and had lived at No 1, which sits above the bay between Bulloch Harbour and the swanky enclave of Killiney's Vico Road.

Among the claims against the law firm is an "exotic" allegation that its alleged failure to ensure certain litigation concerning the property was finalised by 2009 meant its planned sale to Mr O'Donnell, who at the time was living "not far away" at Gorse Hill, did not proceed, Mr Fanning said.

This was because the contract for sale of the property entered into by Mr O'Donnell in 2007 contained a clause which provided that, if litigation concerning the property was not finalised by 2009, the sale did not proceed, president of the High Court Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns heard.

Mr Fanning said this essentially amounted to a claim that the sale of the house was lost "at the top of the market", but his clients (A&L Goodbody) rejected that claim on a number of grounds including that Mr O'Donnell would not have been in a position to close the sale in 2009 due to financial difficulties.

Mr Fanning's side would also argue the plaintiffs knew the 2009 deadline was approaching and could have settled the continuing litigation then, but chose not to do so.

Mr Fanning said that previous litigation had been brought against the owners of No 1, Mr and Mrs Coleman, by their next-door neighbour in No 2, Mr Ronnie Robbins, a lawyer.

In those proceedings, initiated 10 years ago, injunctions were sought compelling the owners of No 1 to deal with various alleged defects to their property which were alleged to be causing a nuisance for Mr Robbins and interfering with his enjoyment of his home, No 2.

It did not end there. As a follow-on from that court action, Mr and Mrs Coleman then sued, among others, builders, engineers and project managers who had done work at No 1 as well as insurers.

Mr Fanning said his side's understanding was that six of those cases had completed and there was one outstanding case pending against various insurance entities as well as the case against his clients, A&L Goodbody, which was initiated four years ago.

During the hearing last week, the judge, Mr Justice Kearns, said from the bench that he believed he may have dealt with earlier litigation concerning the property.

Mr Fanning said, perhaps with tongue-in-cheek, that there "may be few judges who have not", as this was the eighth set of proceedings involving No 1 Sorrento Terrace.

Mr Justice Kearns dealt with various discovery issues in the proceedings before adjourning the matter to July next for further case management.

During last week's case, Mr Fanning said that the house was for sale and on the market with a "modest" asking price of €12m.

This was something of an understatement.

It's 17 years since it was sold to the Colemans in a fairly careworn state with no electricity on the ground floor. The couple lavished millions on effectively rebuilding the house from the inside out, though the facade remains faithful to Mr Darley's 19th Century vision.

In terms of square footage, the house is now twice as large (7,685 sq ft) because the Colemans added a two-storey extension from the basement down. The extension maximises the stunning sea views, and on a fine day, the Sugar Loaf can be seen .

The garden now has a private area for bathing, overlooking the bay. Stucco plasterwork has been restored to its former glory and there is Jerusalem Stone, the highly prized limestone found in and around the Holy Land, in a stunning entrance hall.

The mansion, now known as Sorrento House, also boasts a six car garage on two levels as a nod to Mr Coleman's passion for top-end cars. It also boasts an orangery with bespoke cocktail bar which opens up on to the private terrace.

It's a wonderful property, but after lavishing so much care and attention on its transformation and going through the wearing procession of law suits that followed its purchase, the Colemans have decided to move on from the "unluckiest" house in Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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