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Biesele v. Mattena

Supreme Court of Utah

July 10, 2019

Shellie Biesele and Melodie Jacobsen, Appellees and Cross-Appellants,
v.
Jody Mattena and May Harris, Appellants and Cross-Appellees.

          On Direct Appeal Third District, Salt Lake County The Honorable Patrick Corum No. 140902798

          Matthew N. Evans, Matthew M. Cannon, Salt Lake City, for appellees and cross-appellants

          J. Angus Edwards, Bruce Wycoff, Salt Lake City, for appellant and cross-appellee Jody Mattena Jeffrey R. Oritt, Salt Lake City, for appellant and cross-appellee May Harris

          Associate Chief Justice Lee authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Durrant, Justice Pearce, Justice Petersen, and Judge Hagen joined.

          Having recused himself, Justice Himonas does not participate herein. Court of Appeals Judge Diana Hagen sat.

          LEE, ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE

         ¶1 Two sets of sisters-Shellie Biesele and Melodie Jacobsen, and May Harris and Jody Mattena-were beneficiaries of an inheritance from Royalene Thomas, respectively their stepmother and mother. A family dispute concerning this inheritance escalated into a trial, ultimately resulting in a jury verdict against Harris and Mattena. The jury found that they committed a variety of torts in relation to the inheritance and accordingly found them liable for a considerable sum of compensatory and punitive damages. Both sets of sisters now appeal various rulings made by the trial court during the course of that proceeding.

         ¶2 Harris and Mattena contend that the trial court committed a number of errors. First, they argue that the court erred by imposing joint and several liability on certain damages and fee awards in violation of the Liability Reform Act ("LRA"). Second, they assert that the court should have bifurcated the trial into a liability phase and a damages phase with respect to the punitive damages award. Finally, they aver that the court erred by declining to strike the punitive damages award as excessive. In their cross-appeal, Biesele and Jacobsen argue that the court erred in declining to award them expert witness fees.

         ¶3 We reject each of these arguments and affirm the trial court across the board. Two of our holdings merit a brief preview here. First, we conclude that the LRA's provision for apportionment of damages, Utah Code section 78B-5-818(4)(a), is mandatory only upon a request by a party. We hold, in other words, that in the absence of a request for apportionment, a trial court acts within its discretion in falling back on the default of joint and several liability. Second, we also interpret the terms of Utah Code section 78B-8-201(2), which provides that "[e]vidence of a party's wealth or financial condition shall be admissible only after a finding of liability for punitive damages has been made." We hold that this provision does not mandate bifurcation of a punitive damages trial in a case in which no party sought to introduce evidence of wealth or financial condition. And we conclude that our case law does not require the introduction of such evidence as a prerequisite to the availability of a punitive damages award.

         I

         ¶4 Shellie Biesele and Melodie Jacobsen ("Stepdaughters") are sisters. They are also half-sisters to May Harris and Jody Mattena ("Daughters"). The two sets of sisters share the same father but have different mothers. Royalene Thomas is the biological mother of Daughters and the stepmother of Stepdaughters. Thomas suffered from Alzheimer's disease for a period of time and subsequently passed away. She left an estate which included a trust (the "Trust") and an IRA (the "IRA"). The Trust and the IRA are the subjects of the instant lawsuit.

         ¶5 Stepdaughters brought suit against Daughters alleging that they had engaged in tortious conduct during the period of Thomas's illness and death. Stepdaughters claimed that Daughters improperly spent money from the Trust before Thomas's death, exercised undue influence over Thomas in order to convince her to disinherit Stepdaughters, and failed to disburse money from the IRA to which they (Stepdaughters) were entitled.

         ¶6 The dispute culminated in a five-day jury trial. At trial, Stepdaughters alleged that Daughters committed a variety of intentional torts. And they sought both compensatory and punitive damages to compensate them for these wrongs. Despite the presence of claims potentially giving rise to punitive damages, neither party sought to introduce evidence concerning the wealth or financial status of Daughters. The trial court thus saw no need to bifurcate the trial, and allowed evidence regarding both the Daughters' liability for punitive damages and the amount of those damages.

         ¶7 On the last day of the trial, the parties discussed the use of a special verdict form with the trial court. During that discussion, Daughters raised a concern that there should be "no joint and several liability" based on their reading of the LRA. Consistent with this concern, the special verdict form they proposed requested apportionment of fault for those claims relating to the Trust. The form did not, however, request apportionment for claims relating to the IRA. And the form the trial court eventually sent to the jury contained an apportionment instruction for the Trust but not the IRA.

         ¶8 The jury returned a verdict in favor of Stepdaughters on every issue. The jury awarded Stepdaughters $197, 064.54 in compensatory damages for torts relating to the IRA. This award was joint and several. The jury also awarded Stepdaughters $76, 471.76 from Mattena and $35, 019.16 from Harris in connection with the Trust. Finally, the jury imposed punitive damages on each Daughter in the amount of $308, 555.46.

         ¶9 After the trial, Stepdaughters filed a motion for attorney fees, costs, and expenses. Among the expenses they sought were the fees they paid to an expert witness they retained. Some time after that, Daughters filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. In that motion Daughters contended that the trial court erred by refusing to bifurcate the trial into a liability phase and a damages phase for the punitive damages claim. They also asserted that the jury's punitive damages awards could not be sustained because they were improperly based on contract claims rather than tort claims. The trial court subsequently issued a memorandum decision in which it granted in part and denied in part Stepdaughters' motion for attorney fees, costs, and expenses (allowing only attorney fees) and denied the Daughters' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

         ¶10 The trial court entered final judgment on January 5, 2018. Daughters filed a rule 59 motion to alter the judgment, or in the alternative, for a new trial on February 2, 2018. After the court denied the motion, Daughters and Stepdaughters both filed notices of appeal. Daughters raise three issues on appeal-as to (1) the propriety of the imposition of joint and several liability for claims relating to the IRA, (2) the trial court's failure to bifurcate the trial, and (3) the appropriateness of the punitive damages award. The Stepdaughters raise one additional issue-whether the court erred in declining to award them expert witness fees.

         II

         ¶11 This case raises important questions under the Liability Reform Act, Utah Code §§ 78B-5-817 et seq., and under Utah Code section 78B-8-201(2), which provides that "[e]vidence of a party's wealth or financial condition shall be admissible only after a finding of liability for punitive damages has been made." In addition to questions involving these statutes, the parties have raised issues concerning the trial court's refusal to strike the punitive damages award as excessive and refusal to award expert witness fees to the prevailing party below. On appeal, we must decide: (1) the proper course of action under the LRA when neither party requests apportionment of a damages award; (2) whether bifurcation of the trial is mandatory in all cases where punitive damages are sought; (3) whether the punitive damages award returned by the jury is excessive; and (4) whether the trial court erred in refusing to award expert witness fees. We affirm for reasons explained below.

         A

         ¶12 The trial court imposed joint and several liability on Daughters in two instances-for the damages associated with the IRA and for the attorney fees awarded to ...


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