The Importance of Proving Damages in a Tortious Interference Case

August 24, 2012

florida-case-law.jpgAt face value, "tortious interference" occurs when someone interferes with some sort of expectation to a level that prompts judicial involvement. It often occurs in a business context, referred to as "tortious interference of business expectations," and typically involves a defendant who has interfered with another party's contract expectations.

A relatively new form of tortious interference has emerged in the realm of family law, dubbed "tortious interference with an expected inheritance," and its name gives away the focus of the claim. Of course, like many tort claims, tortious interference with an expected inheritance involves five elements, each of which must be proven before a plaintiff can recover anything. The five elements are:

  1. The existence of an expectance on the plaintiff's part involving the inheritance,
  2. The defendant's intentional interference with that expectancy,
  3. Involvement of tortious conduct, such as fraud, duress, or undue influence, in the defendant's interference,
  4. Reasonable certainty that but for the defendant's interference the plaintiff's expectancy would have been realized, and
  5. Damages.

It bears repeating that each and every one of these elements must be proven. The court will simply toss out the case if even one element is missing, and this includes damages. It is not enough to simply tell the court that someone has harmed you; you must also prove the amount of the harm with some reasonable certainty. For example, in Saewitz v. Saewitz, two sisters sued their stepmother, accusing her of tortuously interfering with their inheritance.

The sisters were able to show the first four elements. They had a reasonable expectation that they would receive some inheritance from their father, and they could even show that their stepmother deprived them of that. But they did not prove damages. They had three witnesses, none of whom could offer a reasonable estimate on the value of the estate the sisters were to receive at the time of their father's death. In other words, each witness could offer some vague generalization of the value of the estate, but none of them could peg down a more specific value of the estate at the time it was actually due to the sisters.

The court found this insufficient to establish the "reasonable certainty" threshold of the fifth necessary element. Reasonable necessity must be "sufficiently certain for a reviewing court to perform its review obligation," and the generalized testimony of three witnesses did not meet this standard.

You might be wondering how nobody at court was able to figure out the value of the man's estate. Well, the estate was in control of the stepmother, who was unsurprisingly difficult to deal with when her daughters came to sue her. She apparently prevented the sisters from proving their damages by refusing to provide (as required by discovery rules) certain accounting documents that would show the amount of damages.

The sisters of course brought this argument to the court's attention. The court replied, however, that there were other methods by which the sisters could have obtained the documents. Alternatively, the sisters could have called in expert witnesses (instead of laypersons and speculation) who could testify to the value of the estate. The sisters did none of these things, and paid dearly for it.

This is perhaps the most important point to take away from this case: you must be able to prove your damages. Don't rely on someone else to do it. Don't rely on speculation. Proving damages may be difficult. Other parties may not cooperate. Nevertheless, the burden is on the plaintiff to prove them.

As an aside, this case brings up another point that plaintiffs in similar positions must consider; that is, the difficulty that will surely arise when suing a family member. The estate in this case was apparently valued around several million dollars, which may have convinced the sisters that a lasting relationship with their stepmother was not very valuable. But the fact remains that their family is likely seriously shaken by the legal process they just went through. Family members will take sides and things will get ugly. Facing such a scenario is not something a person should go through alone, and a Florida Estate Planning Lawyer can help with any questions you might have.