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Wilson v. Sanders

Court of Appeals of Utah

July 18, 2019

Gary Wilson, Appellee,
v.
Elisabeth W. Sanders and Hiram Sanders, Appellants.

          Third District Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Matthew Bates The Honorable Patrick Corum No. 160901482

          Richard Lee Sanders, Attorney for Appellants.

          Clinton Justin Cutler, Attorney for Appellee.

          Judge Ryan M. Harris authored this Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K. Orme and Michele M. Christiansen Forster concurred.

          AMENDED OPINION [1]

          HARRIS, JUDGE.

         ¶1 After Elizabeth Wilson (Mother) died, her two adult children ended up in litigation over her estate. Gary Wilson (Plaintiff) sued his sister Elisabeth W. Sanders (Sister) and her husband Hiram Sanders (collectively, Defendants), seeking an order invalidating Mother's most recent testamentary instrument on the grounds that Defendants had subjected her to undue influence, and alleging that Defendants had intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon him. The case was eventually tried to a jury, which was persuaded by Plaintiff's arguments and not only found that Defendants had unduly influenced Mother, but also awarded Plaintiff $170, 000 on his emotional distress claim, most of which was for punitive damages. Defendants now appeal, and raise various arguments assailing the jury's verdict. We affirm.

         BACKGROUND[2]

         ¶2 In December 2000, Plaintiff permanently relocated from Colorado to Utah to help care for his aging parents, and moved into their house. Plaintiff paid monthly rent and lived in the basement, while his parents lived upstairs. Plaintiff was employed as a school bus driver, which allowed him to spend time at home caring for his parents and maintaining the house. Plaintiff testified that, during this time, Defendants-who lived in Utah-came to the house to visit only once or twice a year, usually on major holidays. In 2006, Mother created a revocable trust (First Trust) that listed both Plaintiff and Sister as beneficiaries, each slated to receive an equal distribution of trust assets. In 2008, Plaintiff and Sister's father passed away.

         ¶3 In February 2015, at the age of eighty-five, Mother fell in a parking lot and hit her head, requiring emergency cranial surgery. Following the surgery, Mother had difficulty speaking and forming sentences, and even had a hard time recognizing her children. According to Plaintiff, she seemed "eager to please" and "very susceptible to suggestion and manipulation."

         ¶4 In April 2015, at Defendants' suggestion, Mother revoked the First Trust and created a second trust (Second Trust), changing the identity of the trustee to an attorney selected by Sister, but not changing the identity of the beneficiaries. One month later, Mother amended the Second Trust to alter the percentage of assets her children would receive, changing the arrangement from fifty-fifty to sixty-forty in favor of Plaintiff.

         ¶5 In July 2015, without informing Plaintiff, Defendants took Mother out of her home and placed her in a hotel room, where she resided for six weeks. During this time, Defendants did not allow Mother to make or receive phone calls and Plaintiff was unable to contact her. While still living in the hotel and out of contact with Plaintiff, Mother met with the attorney/trustee and again revised her trust (Third Trust), this time removing Plaintiff as a beneficiary entirely and leaving everything to Sister and Sister's children. At the time, Plaintiff was unaware that Mother had disinherited him.

         ¶6 Defendants finally allowed Mother to return to her home on the condition that Plaintiff vacate the basement apartment. Plaintiff complied, and Defendants moved into the basement apartment, a series of events that caused the relationship between Plaintiff and Defendants to become even more tense. After they moved into Mother's house, Defendants continued to deny Plaintiff visits with Mother, and on multiple occasions they called the police when Plaintiff tried to visit Mother in her home. However, on each such occasion Plaintiff was allowed to see Mother after the officers spoke to her and confirmed that, as far as she was concerned, Plaintiff was welcome in her home.

         ¶7 Also during this time, Plaintiff claimed that his emotional and mental health went into decline. According to Plaintiff, not being able to contact Mother caused him "significant emotional distress" and "affected his work performance in such a way that his job was in jeopardy." Indeed, Plaintiff's supervisor testified that, on one occasion, Plaintiff appeared so distraught at work that she feared he could not perform his job safely, so she sent him home for the day. In addition, his coworker and neighbor testified that his lighthearted personality disappeared and that he began to vocalize suicidal thoughts. Plaintiff testified that he ended up in the hospital on two occasions, and underwent "numerous therapy sessions" in an effort to restore his mental health. On one occasion, Plaintiff drew a bullet on a calendar, indicating the date on which he planned to commit suicide. Plaintiff's neighbor was so concerned about Plaintiff that he called both the police and Defendants to inform them about Plaintiff's suicidal comments. When the neighbor told Defendants about the calendar, Sister remarked, "Wouldn't that make things easier?"

         ¶8 In January 2016, Mother slipped into a coma, but Defendants did not promptly notify Plaintiff about Mother's declining condition; Plaintiff did not learn about her condition until three days later. Shortly thereafter, Mother passed away. Plaintiff first heard the news from Sister when he called to check on Mother. Although Plaintiff was at work only a few minutes away at the time of Mother's passing, Defendants did not inform him when Mother had "only hours to live." Plaintiff testified that not being with Mother at the time of her death was traumatic-something "[t]hat's going to mess with [him] the rest of [his] life."

         ¶9 After Mother's passing, Plaintiff discovered that he had been completely disinherited under the Third Trust. Plaintiff then filed suit seeking to invalidate the Third Trust on the basis of undue influence. He also brought a claim against Defendants for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). Following a three-day trial, Defendants' counsel moved for a directed verdict as to Plaintiff's undue influence claim. The trial court denied the motion and the case was sent to the jury, which found in favor of Plaintiff and invalidated the Third Trust on the basis of undue influence. The jury also found in favor of Plaintiff on his IIED claim, awarding him both non-economic and punitive damages. The jury found Defendants each separately liable to Plaintiff for $10, 000 in compensatory non-economic damages, and in addition awarded Plaintiff $150, 000-for which Defendants were jointly and severally liable-in punitive damages.

         ¶10 Following the trial, Defendants timely filed a motion, grounded in rule 60 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, to vacate the judgment. On March 29, 2018, the court entered final judgment on the verdict, and a few days later, on April 8, 2018, the trial court issued a written minute entry denying the rule 60 motion. Then, on April 24, 2018, Defendants filed a notice of appeal (Notice), which states as follows:

The Appeal is taken from the Final Judgment entered March 29th, 2018, and against orders or rulings upon motions such that if the Final Judgment be reversed . . . that necessarily shall be of same effect on any ...

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