The case highlights a common problem with fiduciary litigation – estate disputes often span multiple courts and involve multiple separate lawsuits. The case therefore serves as a good reminder to fiduciary litigators that it is their responsibility to follow proper procedure or risk losing a damage award on appeal.
When Opal Mae Tapley died, Shirley Meeks submitted a will to probate under which she was both executor and sole beneficiary. The Carroll County probate court set aside that will on the ground that Tapley lacked the capacity to make it. The probate court also appointed Lawrence Shadix as temporary administrator of Tapley’s estate. The probate court ruling was appealed by Meeks to superior court. After a jury trial, the Carroll County superior court also set aside the will.
In the probate proceedings, Meeks testified that Tapley’s 2003 pickup truck disappeared after Tapley’s husband moved into a nursing home. After the probate hearing, however, further investigation revealed that Meeks’s son-in-law had sold the truck. The estate, therefore, filed an action against Meeks alleging that she converted the truck.
Meeks ultimately pled guilty to two counts of theft by taking, false reporting of a crime, and perjury concerning the truck as well as some furniture owned by the estate.
In the conversion case against Meeks, the trial court granted the estate partial summary judgment as to Meeks’s liability for appropriating the truck and the furniture. The court found that the converted truck was worth $12,500 and awarded double the value pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 53-6-2.
Meeks moved for reconsideration and then appealed the partial grant of summary judgment. After Meeks filed her notice of appeal, the trial court granted the motion for reconsideration. Meeks probably wished she hadn’t asked the trial court to reconsider the $25,000 order.
On reconsideration, the trial court scheduled a bench trial, found that the truck was worth $12,000 (and doubled the award to $24,000), awarded an additional $12,000 in compensatory damages for “the conversion, fraud, and other wrongs perpetrated” on the estate (apparently relating to the furniture), awarded attorney’s fees for the appeal of the probate court order setting aside the will for lack of capacity in the separate prior case, and awarded punitive damages.
Now let’s go over all the trial court’s procedural mistakes.
1. Meeks’s notice of appeal served as supersedeas to the subject matter of that partial summary judgment. Therefore, the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to order a bench trial as to damages and award another amount of damages.
2. There was no actual evidence to support the value of the converted furniture, therefore, the trial court erred in awarding that additional $12,000 for “the conversion, fraud, and other wrongs perpetrated” on the estate. Sure, there was testimony that the stuff was stolen by Meeks, but in a conversion case, the plaintiff still has to prove the value of the converted property. Without proof of value, there can be no award of damages.
3. The trial court erred in awarding attorney’s fees for the prior will contest appeal to superior court. First, in the will contest proceeding, the issue of attorney’s fees was never put to the jury. Under the applicable Georgia attorney’s fees statute (O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11), only the factfinder in the particular case can award attorney’s fees. Second, a party cannot recover fees under that attorney’s fees statute to the extent that those fees were incurred in a prior legal action. In other words, the attorney’s fees for the prior litigation should have been sought in the prior litigation.