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Blind woman battles losses

VALRICO — Sharon Salyer wants what is rightfully hers.

Thirty-one years ago, when she was 7, a medical mistake stole her vision. A settlement with the hospital guaranteed her $7,000 monthly annuity payments for life.

Her parents, Andrew and Yee Ho Chu, managed the money. With her permission, they spent some of it to buy a 200-acre farm in Wimauma, where her father gained fame for introducing grape tomatoes to the United States.

Salyer, 38, says they led her to believe that she co-owned the land. She didn't.

Last year, a judge ordered the Chus to turn over half interest in the farm. But now Salyer stands to lose that, too.

During the legal battle, the Chus stopped paying on a $475,000 loan secured by a mortgage on the farm, according to court records. The lender, Farm Credit of Central Florida, initiated foreclosure proceedings and is seeking a summary judgment in its favor.

Farm Credit has acknowledged Salyer's "unfortunate circumstances," but refused to delay today's hearing.

Salyer can't believe she has to fight for the farm all over again.

"Why should Sharon have to pay for her property twice?" asked her husband, Gregory Salyer.

Sharon Salyer agreed to help her father buy the land in 1990, with the understanding that her name would also be on the title, she said.

By then, she was 18 and had accumulated $758,000 in annuity payments from a personal injury claim against a Volusia County hospital. She had lost her eyesight after the medical staff failed to recognize she was on the verge of a diabetic coma.

Her parents were supposed to hold the money in trust for her exclusive use and benefit. Aside from the farm purchase, Salyer said, her father told her the money was in the bank "in case the doctors came up with a surgery that could cure my blindness."

But after Salyer married in 2000, her husband discovered that her name was not on the farm title and the monthly payments had nearly all been spent.

Sharon Salyer confronted her parents on Thanksgiving 2003. She remembers her mother telling her they spent the money on a failed shrimp farm venture. Her father was evasive, Salyer said.

Salyer, then 31, had begun collecting her monthly payments directly from the hospital's insurance company the year before.

She took her parents to court over the farm and lost money.

Her lawsuit said the Chus gave her a bank statement that showed a balance of $400. They said that was all that remained.

Andrew Chu, 71, defended himself in a 2007 deposition.

He said his daughter told him, "Any time you need to use the money, use it." She periodically asked how much was in her account, he said. His wife told Salyer they were spending her money on the family business.

During the June 2009 civil trial, the Chus offered a "one-heart" defense. In their Chinese culture, they said, a family is of one heart and each member's money is commingled and shared.

Their arguments didn't fly. Hillsborough Senior Judge J. Rogers Padgett found that the Chus misled their daughter. Not only did he award Salyer half of the farm, but he also ordered the Chus to account for nearly $1.8 million of her settlement money.

The Chus have appealed some parts of the final judgment.

Salyer's sister said her parents will be able to show that they spent much of the money on Salyer's care. She lived with them until getting married, and they paid for her food, medication, health care, community college education and "her dream wedding that she wanted," said Josephine Chu-Crider.

"They did not steal anything from Sharon," said Chu-Crider, 35, who has also been entangled in litigation with her sister and brother-in-law. "She was treated like a queen."

The Chus had refinanced in 2008, expecting to sell the farm, Chu-Crider said. They didn't plant a crop because they didn't expect to remain at the property. Then the sale fell through, and they had no income to repay Farm Credit, she said.

Farm Credit filed the foreclosure complaint on Aug. 4, 2009, two days before Judge Padgett awarded Salyer half interest. Salyer didn't learn of the foreclosure until earlier this year.

Her attorney's attempts at negotiating with the lender have been unsuccessful.

"Farm Credit asked me to portray to you that it certainly regrets the unfortunate circumstances that have led to Ms. Salyer's situation and that it will certainly entertain any and all offers to purchase the property should it take title to the property pursuant to the above referenced foreclosure action," an attorney for the lender wrote this month.

If Andrew Chu attends today's hearing, it will be the first time Gregory and Sharon Salyer have encountered him since a run-in in June.

The couple had gone to Chu Farm to see if any crops were growing. Andrew Chu didn't want them there. According to an arrest report, he sent that message by throwing his truck into reverse and ramming the front of the couple's car.

He now faces charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and battery, with his son-in-law and daughter listed as the victims.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Blind woman battles losses 09/29/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 11:29pm]
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