Written on January 3, 2013 – 8:49 am | by Angela Casey
In the recent decision in Walling v. Walling, Justice Pierce considered the question of whether punitive damages were appropriate in an action by two nephews against their uncle, who had acted as the estate trustee of their father’s estate.
The father died when the boys were 16 and 12. The two boys were to have shared equally in their father’s estate. Sadly, the uncle squandered, misappropriated, or otherwise failed to account for the estate assets. He permitted others to take items from the estate, sold estate chattels under value, failed to preserve the estate and ultimately failed to distribute the estate to the beneficiaries, his nephews.
The deceased was a millwright, whose estate consisted primarily of tools and equipment related to his trade. Although the estate was modest (approximately $42,000, including the interest that should have accrued), the court found that had the estate trustee acted properly, the boys would have had been able to plan and pay for an education of their choice. Instead, they were restricted to taking what they could afford and took on debt in the process while their uncle evaded his duty to distribute the estate to them.
The uncle’s conduct was egregious in non-financial ways as well. The judge recognized the emotional harm caused by the uncle’s failure to offer the boys any meaningful mementos belonging to their father and the uncle’s decision to exclude the boys when their father’s ashes were scattered.
In prior litigation, the uncle breached several court orders requiring him to account, with the result that he was found in contempt several times, spent 7 days in jail, and had his wages garnished to partially satisfy several cost awards that he refused or neglected to pay.
The court found that punitive damages were appropriate. Justice Pierce observed that an award for punitive damages must be proportionate to: (a) the blameworthiness of the defendant’s conduct, (b) the vulnerability of the plaintiff, (c) the harm or potential harm to the plaintiff, (d) the need for deterrence, and (e) the advantage wrongfully gained by the defendant.
Although the plaintiffs sought $50,000 in punitive damages, the judge found that $50,000 would not be sufficient to properly reflect “the court’s abhorrence of the defendant’s conduct and the need to deter the defendant and other from similar conduct in the future” and instead awarded $100,000. The plaintiffs also received judgment for the entire value of the estate, their legal fees incurred in the accounting litigation (with a deduction for the amounts received through garnishment), interest, and substantial indemnity costs in the (undefended) action.
Thanks for reading,