Friday, May 4, 2012
C.A. Recognizes Interference-With-Expected-Inheritance Tort
Justices Grant Leave to Amend Complaint in Case Involving Rock Hudson’s Ex-Lover
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A person who is the victim of willfully tortious conduct directed at another person, and who thereby loses an expected inheritance from that person’s estate, may have a cause of action under California law, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Presiding Justice Kathleen O’Leary, writing for Div. Three, said “it is time to officially recognize this tort claim” for intentional interference with an expected inheritance. The court sent Brent Beckwith’s suit against Susan Dahl back to the Orange Superior Court so that he can amend his complaint to state such a claim, and/or to pursue a deceit claim the appellate panel said was erroneously dismissed.
Beckwith alleged that he had a 10-year relationship with Dahl’s brother, Marc Christian MacGinnis, who died in 2009 at age 56 of pulmonary disease. MacGinnis left an estate valued at more than $1 million.
MacGinnis, who had previously used the name Marc Christian, was the lover of actor Rock Hudson, and sued the actor’s estate for intentional infliction of emotional distress on the ground that Hudson knowingly concealed the fact that the actor had AIDS. Although MacGinnis never contracted the disease, according to a newspaper obituary, the Court of Appeal upheld a judgment in his favor, saying he was entitled to be compensated for the “ultimate in personal horror, the fear of slow, agonizing death.”
The case was ultimately settled for a sum said to be less than $6 million.
Beckwith alleged in his complaint that MacGinnis had prepared a will dividing his estate between Beckwith and Dahl. While MacGinnis was in the hospital awaiting surgery in May 2009, he asked Beckwith to print out the will so he could sign it.
Beckwith said he could not find the will on MacGinnis’ computer, so MacGinnis asked him to prepare a new one that he could sign the next day. Beckwith said he downloaded forms from the Internet and prepared a will, again dividing the estate between Beckwith and Dahl.
Beckwith alleges that he emailed the will to Dahl, who responded that it would be better to “look into a Trust” in order to avoid probate and offered to contact some attorney friends about the matter. Beckwith says he discussed the trust with Dahl, and that Dahl told him not to show the proposed will to MacGinnis because one of her friends was going to prepare the trust documents.
Filed for Probate
Dahl, the complaint alleges, never presented trust documents to MacGinnis, who died intestate days after surgery. Dahl eventually filed for probate, and told Beckwith that she had done so, but did not send him copies of any filings and did not respond to his emails about the case.
The court eventually awarded the entire estate to Dahl as the only surviving family member. Beckwith’s challenge to the final distribution of the estate was rejected due to lack of standing.
In his complaint against Dahl in Orange Superior Court, Beckwith alleged that Dahl interfered with his expected inheritance by lying to him about her intention to prepare a living trust, and that it was her intention to delay the matter until after the surgery in order to inherit the entire estate.
Dahl demurred on the grounds that there is no tort of intentional interference with expected inheritance in California, that the allegations were too vague to state a fraud claim, that Beckwith’s alleged damages were not caused by any tortious conduct on her part, that Beckwith had no vested interest in the estate, and that she owed no duty to Beckwith that could be the basis for a negligence claim.
Orange Superior Court Judge Luis Rodriguez sustained the demurrer. He said that any recognition of the inheritance tort would have to come from an appellate court, and that he had inadequately pled fraud.
The judge added that even if California recognized IIEI, the plaintiff had insufficiently pled the independent tortious conduct that courts in states that do recognize the tort have required.
O’Leary, writing for the Court of Appeal, noted that at least 25 states have recognized the tort, which is outlined in the Restatement Second of Torts.
As a matter of policy, the presiding justice said, California should join that list of states. By allowing IIEI claims when there is a provable and not merely speculative injury, and no adequate remedy in probate, “we strike the appropriate balance between respecting the integrity of the probate system, guarding against tort liability for inherently speculative claims, and protecting society’s interest in providing a remedy for injured parties,” the jurist wrote.
The elements of the claim, O’Leary went on to say, are the plaintiff’s expectancy of an inheritance, causation, intent to interfere with an expected inheritance of which the defendant is aware, that the interference was tortious, and damages.
The presiding justice emphasized that the misconduct must be directed at the testator, or some other person with a relevant relationship to the testator—such as his attorney—and not the plaintiff.
Beckwith, O’Leary said, failed to meet the pleading standard because he did not allege that Dahl directed tortious conduct at her brother, only that she lied to Beckwith. But since the trial court found the pleading insufficient based on the lack of prior recognition of the tort, the presiding justice said, Beckwith deserves a chance to amend.
The jurist went on to say that Beckwith stated a claim for promissory fraud by alleging that Dahl made him a specific promise with no intention to perform, that he justifiably relied on that promise in not presenting the printed-out will to MacGinnis before the surgery, and that he suffered damages as a result.
Attorneys on appeal were Brett S. Markson for the plaintiff and Joseph A. Walker and Mary G. Finlay for the defendant. The Court of Appeal invited several organizations to file amicus briefs; the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Consumer Attorneys of California did so, supporting the plaintiff, while the Family Research Council and the Civil Justice Association of California did not file briefs.
The case is Beckwith v. Dahl, G044479.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company