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Smith v. Smith

Supreme Court of West Virginia

January 5, 2018

Donald L. Smith and Douglas O. Smith, Defendants Below, Petitioners
v.
Dannie L. Smith and Doran R. Smith, Plaintiffs Below, Respondents

         Jackson County 14-C-103

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         The parties in this appeal are four brothers. Petitioners Donald L. Smith and Douglas O. Smith, by counsel Robert R. Waters and Steven M. Wright, appeal the December 29, 2016, order of the Circuit Court of Jackson County denying their motion for a new trial after a jury found for respondents on their claims of undue influence, intentional interference with expectancy, and conversion regarding distribution of their mother's assets. Respondents Dannie L. Smith and Doran R. Smith, by counsel Joshua S. Rogers and Haley S. Hillen, filed a response. Petitioners filed a reply.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The parties are the adult sons of Freda Wylene Smith ("decedent"), who died in 2014 at the age of 93. The litigation between the two sets of brothers that led to the instant appeal concerned the transfer of the decedent's assets prior to and upon her death. Doran R. Smith and Dannie L. Smith, plaintiffs below and respondents herein ("plaintiffs"), filed suit against Donald L. Smith and Douglas O. Smith, defendants below and petitioners herein ("defendants"), alleging that defendants exerted undue influence and manipulated the decedent into giving defendants a vast majority of her assets.

         The decedent suffered from various ailments and relied on her husband for her care. After her husband died, the decedent was partially dependent on defendants for her needs. Defendants lived near the decedent; plaintiffs lived out of state. Prior to her declining health, the decedent had titled her assets so that her sons would share equally in their distribution upon her death. During her later years, however, the decedent changed the titling of the majority of her assets so that they would pass to defendants. Believing that their mother had been manipulated, plaintiffs filed suit in which they claimed that defendants had a confidential or fiduciary relationship with decedent; that defendants exerted undue influence over the decedent; that defendants interfered with their expectancy; and that defendants converted assets for their own use. Plaintiffs also requested punitive damages.

         The matter proceeded to a three-day jury trial in September of 2015.[1] The circuit court utilized the verdict form submitted by plaintiffs, with only minor modifications. Section I.A. of the verdict form related to Plaintiffs' claim of undue influence/constructive fraud. Following initial deliberations, the jury returned its verdict on Section I.A. as follows:

1. Do you find that the Plaintiffs have proven that one or both of the Defendants had a confidential or fiduciary relationship with Freda Wylene Smith?
Yes ___ X___ No ___
If your answer to Question 1 is "no, " please proceed to Question 4 below. If your answer is "yes, " please proceed to Question 2.
2. Do you find that the Plaintiffs have proven that one or both of the Defendants used his confidential or fiduciary relationship with Freda Wylene Smith to obtain financial or other benefits from Mrs. Smith's estate planning?
Yes ___X___ No___
If your answer to Question 2 is "no, " please proceed to Question 4 below. If your answer is "yes, " please proceed to Question 3.
3. If your answers to Questions 1 and 2 above were "yes, " do you find that the Defendants have met their burden of proving that they did not exercise undue influence over Freda Wylene Smith to change her overall ...

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