In re Estate of Peters, No. 99-154

Docket NºNo. 99-154
Citation765 A.2d 468
Case DateOctober 20, 2000
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

765 A.2d 468

In re ESTATE OF Cheryl PETERS.
(Carroll Peters, Appellant)

Nos. 99-154, 99-258.

Supreme Court of Vermont.

October 20, 2000.

Motion for Reargument Denied November 28, 2000.


765 A.2d 471
Kurt M. Hughes of Murdoch & Hughes, Burlington, for Plaintiff-Appellee

Charles S. Martin of Martin & Associates, Barre, for Defendant-Appellant.

Present: AMESTOY, C.J., DOOLEY, MORSE, JOHNSON and SKOGLUND, JJ.

AMESTOY, C.J.

Defendant Carroll Peters appeals from a Lamoille Superior Court jury verdict for plaintiff in a civil action for a sexual battery he allegedly committed against Cheryl Peters. Defendant raises six arguments on appeal: (1) the action is barred by the statute of limitations; (2) in a tort action for battery between spouses, a finding that consent to sexual intercourse has been withdrawn is a prerequisite to liability; (3) the trial court erred by allowing out-of-court statements made by Mrs. Peters, the deceased victim, to be admitted; (4) the compensatory damages are excessive; (5) the trial court erred in submitting the issue of punitive damages to the jury without first allowing defendant to disclose his lack of wealth; and (6) the trial court erred in awarding attorney's fees without any evidence to support the award. We affirm.

The following evidence was introduced at trial. Defendant and Cheryl Peters were married on July 13, 1990 and lived together in Hyde Park, Vermont. Mrs. Peters had several children who were not related to defendant. The Peters began having marital problems, and in January 1993 separated. Mrs. Peters moved in with her daughter, Raemarie Lamare, who lived in Morrisville Several months later, in the summer of 1993, Mrs. Peters rented a house in Morrisville with her cousin, Richard Fitzgerald. In July of that year, Mrs. Peters quit-claimed her rights to the Hyde Park house. Defendant filed for divorce on August 4, 1993, and Mrs. Peters accepted service of the divorce papers.

On Sunday, August 8, 1993, defendant arrived at Mrs. Peters's residence in Morrisville at approximately 9:00 p.m. Mrs. Peters was not there. Nicole Deuso, Ms. Peters' daughter, was there. Ms. Deuso testified that she and her boyfriend, Bryant Pierce, asked defendant to leave several times, but that he refused, and remained in the living room reading letters and poems he had written for Mrs. Peters. Eventually, Ms. Deuso turned out the lights in the living room to go to sleep, and defendant went into Mrs. Peters' bedroom.

According to Ms. Deuso, Mrs. Peters arrived home that morning at about 1:30 a.m., intoxicated. Ms. Deuso told her that defendant was in her bedroom, so Mrs. Peters went into her cousin's unoccupied bedroom. Defendant followed Mrs. Peters into the bedroom and then throughout the house as Mrs. Peters attempted to evade him, screaming "[i]t's my house!" Eventually, Mrs. Peters went into her bedroom, and defendant followed. According to Ms. Deuso, she told him, "[i]f you're going to be here, then just shut up and let me get some sleep."

The next morning Ms. Deuso heard Mrs. Peters ask defendant what he was doing there. She saw Mrs. Peters come out of the bedroom in the same dress she had worn the night before and go into the bathroom to get dressed for work. Defendant then came out of the bedroom in his t-shirt and underwear. Mr. Fitzgerald arrived home that morning. He testified that he was surprised to see defendant there, and felt that something was wrong.

At approximately 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, August 10th, defendant visited Mrs. Peters' daughter, Ms. Lamare, at her

765 A.2d 472
apartment. Ms. Lamare testified that defendant told her that he "violated [her] mother" when he had gone to her house "the other night." Ms. Lamare recounted that defendant explained that when Mrs. Peters was passed out, he crawled into the bed and "made her accessible to him," and that he "couldn't get it in very far, but it was good for him and that he ejaculated." Defendant then asked Ms. Lamare whether he should call Mrs. Peters at work before she received a letter he had sent to her, confessing to what he had done. Ms. Lamare suggested that he call Mrs. Peters before she received his letter. Ms. Lamare told defendant that she hoped her mother "nailed his ass to the wall" for what he had done, to which defendant responded, "I'll do anything I can to get away with it."

Around 1:00 p.m. that same day, Mrs. Peters arrived at Ms. Lamare's apartment. Ms. Lamare testified that she could tell that something was wrong as soon as she saw her mother, and that Mrs. Peters immediately informed her that defendant had called her at work and told her that he had "violated" her. She stated that Mrs. Peters was "devastated," and cried repeatedly, "I can't believe he raped me" as she rocked back and forth on the couch. Ms. Lamare encouraged her mother to call the police, but Mrs. Peters responded that she "didn't dare" to report the incident.

The next day, Mrs. Peters returned to Ms. Lamare's house with defendant's letter in which he confessed to the assault. The letter states, "I took advantage of you without your permission—sorry . . . ." The letter, which was admitted into evidence and read into the record by Ms. Lamare, graphically described the incident and defendant's explanation for his conduct. In the weeks that followed, defendant continually called and sent letters to Mrs. Peters. Ms. Lamare testified that her mother was frightened and hurt, and that her foremost concern "was to go where she couldn't be found."

Linda Briggs, Mrs. Peters' co-worker, testified that she had a conversation with Mrs. Peters "on a day in August of 1993," but did not specify the date. She noticed Mrs. Peters was upset and acting differently, and that her emotional state interfered with her work. When Ms. Briggs asked Mrs. Peters what was wrong, she responded that defendant "broke into [her] house the other night and raped [her]."

Mrs. Peters's cousin and roommate, Mr. Fitzgerald, testified that he met Mrs. Peters at the V.F.W. club to find out what had been bothering her when he saw her at their house on the morning at issue. She told Mr. Fitzgerald that defendant had raped her "the other morning." She stated that she did not want to get the police involved because she was scared, and that she was going to move out of town. Mr. Fitzgerald testified that Mrs. Peters was scared as she discussed this with him. However, he could not recall whether this conversation occurred on the evening of the early-morning assault or on the evening immediately after.

A few weeks later, Mrs. Peters went to the home of another of her daughters, Tina Teale, to borrow a truck for her move to Montpelier the following week. Ms. Teale testified that her mother was visibly upset and told Tina that defendant had raped her. Mrs. Peters showed Ms. Teale defendant's confession letter.

Mrs. Peters died on September 2, 1993, as a result of an unsolved homicide in the Morrisville home she shared with Mr. Fitzgerald. On June 10, 1996, Mrs. Peters' five children and her estate filed a complaint against defendant alleging wrongful death, sexual assault and battery. Defendant filed an answer and affirmative defenses on July 10, 1996. On July 31, 1996, defendant filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that the wrongful death claim was barred by the statute of limitations, and that the sexual assault and battery claim did not allege a tort recognized by Vermont common or statutory law. The trial court dismissed

765 A.2d 473
the wrongful death claim because it was time-barred, but denied defendant's motion to dismiss the assault and battery claim. The estate was the only remaining plaintiff

A three-day jury trial began on November 23, 1998. The above-mentioned witnesses testified, and several letters written by defendant, including the confession letter, were entered into evidence. Defendant's sole witness was a urologist whose testimony was limited to defendant's sexual capabilities. At the close of plaintiff's case, defendant moved for a directed verdict. In denying defendant's motion, the court stated, "I think the evidence is overwhelming, and this jury, if it believes the witnesses, would be well justified in finding that there was involuntary sexual intercourse, and that that amounted to a battery . . . ."

After the charge conference and at the close of both parties' evidence, the court gave the jury instructions. Defendant objected to the charge on punitive damages, arguing that the trial should have been bifurcated on this issue because defendant had not been given an opportunity to present his financial status. The court denied the objection, noting that defendant had not raised this issue at the charge conference, and that defendant was absent from a majority of the trial. After deliberations, the jury returned a verdict for plaintiff of $125,000 in compensatory damages and $480,000 in punitive damages. Defendant moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial. The court denied the motion and entered judgment on the verdict. This appeal followed.

I.

Defendant first argues that plaintiff's battery claim is barred because it was not brought within the two-year statute of limitations for survival actions. See 12 V.S.A. § 557(a). Plaintiff implicitly concedes the applicability of the limitation, but contends that the statute of limitations has been waived in this case by defendant's failure to assert it. We agree that defendant has not preserved a statute of limitations defense to plaintiff's battery claim.

Letters of administration memorializing Mrs. Peters' death were issued on September 10, 1993. Plaintiff's complaint alleging that defendant "committed a sexual assault and battery" on decedent (Count I), and did "willfully, deliberately and with premeditation kill . . . decedent" (Count II), was filed on June 10, 1996. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that Count II...

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17 practice notes
  • Sweet v. Roy, No. 99-230.
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • April 26, 2002
    ...Turgeon v. Schneider, 150 Vt. 268, 272, 553 A.2d 548, 551 (1988) (internal quotations omitted). In re Estate of Peters, 171 Vt. 381, 393, 765 A.2d 468, 477 (2000). We also noted that we will not interfere with a jury award where exact computation is impossible. Id. at 393, 765 A.2d at 477-7......
  • Cole v. Foxmar, Inc., 2:18-cv-00220
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. District of Vermont
    • March 22, 2022
    ...23 Court has held that it is not possible to place an exact "monetary value on a person's sense of dignity [.]" In re Est. of Peters, 765 A.2d 468, 477 (Vt. 2000). "Calculating damages is the jury's duty," and considering the evidence, "the size of the verdict alone does not show that the a......
  • Madden v. Abate, Case No. 2:09–cv–145.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. District of Vermont
    • July 6, 2011
    ...statutes, in and of themselves, do not create private rights of action but attempts to rely upon In Re: Estate of Peters, 171 Vt. 381, 765 A.2d 468 (2000), for the proposition that Vermont courts have explicitly recognized a civil cause of action for sexual assault. In that case, the plaint......
  • State v. Kelley, No. 14–440.
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • May 20, 2016
    ...reflection and fabrication will be suspended when she is subject to the excitement of a startling event.”In re Peters, 171 Vt. 381, 391, 765 A.2d 468, 476 (2000). Although the statement “need not be made immediately after the startling event,” the declarant's excited condition, which is the......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
17 cases
  • Sweet v. Roy, No. 99-230.
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • April 26, 2002
    ...Turgeon v. Schneider, 150 Vt. 268, 272, 553 A.2d 548, 551 (1988) (internal quotations omitted). In re Estate of Peters, 171 Vt. 381, 393, 765 A.2d 468, 477 (2000). We also noted that we will not interfere with a jury award where exact computation is impossible. Id. at 393, 765 A.2d at 477-7......
  • Cole v. Foxmar, Inc., 2:18-cv-00220
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. District of Vermont
    • March 22, 2022
    ...23 Court has held that it is not possible to place an exact "monetary value on a person's sense of dignity [.]" In re Est. of Peters, 765 A.2d 468, 477 (Vt. 2000). "Calculating damages is the jury's duty," and considering the evidence, "the size of the verdict alone does not show that the a......
  • Madden v. Abate, Case No. 2:09–cv–145.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. District of Vermont
    • July 6, 2011
    ...statutes, in and of themselves, do not create private rights of action but attempts to rely upon In Re: Estate of Peters, 171 Vt. 381, 765 A.2d 468 (2000), for the proposition that Vermont courts have explicitly recognized a civil cause of action for sexual assault. In that case, the plaint......
  • State v. Kelley, No. 14–440.
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • May 20, 2016
    ...reflection and fabrication will be suspended when she is subject to the excitement of a startling event.”In re Peters, 171 Vt. 381, 391, 765 A.2d 468, 476 (2000). Although the statement “need not be made immediately after the startling event,” the declarant's excited condition, which is the......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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