Schaeffer v. Poellnitz, 1110353.

CourtSupreme Court of Alabama
Writing for the CourtMAIN, Justice.
Citation154 So.3d 979
PartiesMary Leila Beasley SCHAEFFER and the Estate of Emma Glass Beasley v. William M. POELLNITZ, as administrator of the Estate of Edwin G. Young, deceased, et al.
Docket Number1110353.
Decision Date30 May 2014

154 So.3d 979

Mary Leila Beasley SCHAEFFER and the Estate of Emma Glass Beasley
William M. POELLNITZ, as administrator of the Estate of Edwin G. Young, deceased, et al.


Supreme Court of Alabama.

May 30, 2014.

154 So.3d 981

Marc James Ayers of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP, Birmingham, for appellants.

Woodford W. Dinning, Jr., and Alexander F. Braswell of Lloyd & Dinning, LLC, Demopolis, for appellee.

Deborah Alley Smith, Abbott Marie Jones, and Sharon D. Stuart, chairperson of amicus curiae Committee, Alabama Defense Lawyers Association, of Christian & Small LLP, Birmingham; and Melody H. Eagan, president of Alabama Defense Lawyers Association, of Lightfoot Franklin White LLC, Birmingham, for amicus curiae Alabama Defense Lawyers Association, in support of the appellants.


MAIN, Justice.1

Mary Leila Beasley Schaeffer and the estate of Emma Glass Beasley (hereinafter

154 So.3d 982

collectively referred to as “the Beasley branch”) appeal from a judgment entered on a jury verdict, awarding compensatory damages and punitive damages on mismanagement-of-trust and conversion claims in an action by William M. Poellnitz, as administrator of the estate of Edwin Glass Young, deceased, Adele Young Sommers, and Willard P. Young (hereinafter collectively referred to as “the Young branch”). We affirm in part and we reverse in part and render a judgment for the Beasley branch on certain of the Young branch's claims.

I. Facts and Procedural History

This case involves the management of a family trust, the Westwood Management Trust (“the Trust”); the disposition of personal property after the death of a family member, Edwin Glass Young (“Eddie”); and claims of moneys owed between family members. The corpus of the Trust consists of family farmland, called Westwood (“Westwood”), located in Uniontown, Perry County, comprising 541 acres, and an antebellum house situated on Westwood. Two sisters, Emma Glass Beasley (“Emma”) and Lyle Glass Young (“Lyle”),2 inherited Westwood, including the house, as well as two adjoining properties called Shields, consisting of 329 acres (“the Shields property”), and Davidson, consisting of 598 acres (“the Davidson property”), from their parents, Julius Franklin Glass and Adele Davidson Ellis Glass, who died in 1964 and 1988, respectively. Emma had two daughters, Ellis Beasley Long (“Ellis”) and Mary Leila Beasley Schaeffer (“Mary”).3 Lyle had three children, Eddie, who died in 2005, Willard P. Young (“Billy”), and Adele Young Sommers (“Adele”).

Members of the Beasley branch and the Young branch have resided at Westwood sporadically throughout the years. In particular, in the 1940s, Emma, along with her two daughters, Ellis and Mary, and Emma's sister, Lyle, along with her children, Eddie, Billy, and Adele, lived at Westwood. In 1951, Emma, Ellis, and Mary moved to Houston, Texas, while various members of the Young branch continued to reside at Westwood.4

In August 1964, Billy left Westwood to enter college, and he never returned to live at Westwood. In the mid 1960s, Mary and Ellis returned to Westwood and managed the family farms, the primary product of which was cotton, and ran the cotton gin on the property while their mother, Emma, remained in Texas to care for her mother and her sister, Lyle, who both had moved to Texas to live with her. Eddie assisted his cousins, Mary and Ellis, in running the cotton gin in 1969 and 1970 before he married and moved to Louisiana. Adele moved from Westwood around 1970 and did not return.

Lyle, who had moved to Texas to live with Emma in 1968, developed substantial medical problems while there that prevented her from working. Emma cared for Lyle while she lived with her. Lyle's children did not assist with their mother's care.

Lyle's children visited her infrequently while she was living in Texas with Emma. During the time Lyle lived in Texas—from 1968 until her death in 1996—Eddie lived

154 So.3d 983

in Louisiana until 1993, when he returned to Alabama; Billy lived in California, where he had resided since 1972; and Adele, after leaving Westwood around 1970, lived in Texas for a brief period, where she completed high school and some college, and subsequently moved to Florida.

In December 1995, Emma employed an attorney in Texas to draft the Trust. The primary purpose of the Trust was to protect, maintain, and provide for Emma and Lyle during their lifetimes. The Trust instrument provided that Emma's and Lyle's children held a beneficiary interest in the corpus of the Trust, contingent upon the death of both Emma and Lyle. Emma's and Lyle's children would receive distributions, following the deaths of both Emma and Lyle, only if there was sufficient net income each fiscal year to make proper distributions. Emma was named the trustee of the Trust. On December 21, 1995, Emma and Lyle executed the Trust instrument. That same day, Emma and Lyle deeded Westwood, including the house, to the Trust. Lyle died in June 1996. Lyle's will provided that all of her assets were devised to her 3 children—Eddie, Billy, and Adele.

In May 1996, before Lyle's death, Billy initiated a partition-of-land lawsuit in Marengo County concerning the Shields property and the Davidson property. In January 1998, the Beasley branch and the Young branch entered into a mediated settlement agreement. The Shields property and the Davidson property were reapportioned and both the Beasley branch and the Young branch received 433 acres of land. At that time, the Young branch agreed to reimburse the Beasley branch $28,000 incurred for the caretaking of their mother, Lyle, upon the sale of their portion of the land.

Eddie, who had returned to Uniontown from Louisiana around 1993, lived at the Westwood house for a short period in 1995 before moving to the cotton-gin office, where he remained until he died there on February 3, 2005. While Eddie was living in Uniontown from 1993 until his death in 2005, he did not pay rent but performed various tasks on and for Westwood. Eddie's body was removed from the cotton-gin office on February 5, 2005. Because the cotton-gin office had been burglarized on several occasions, Mary locked the cotton-gin office after Eddie's body was removed.

The day after Eddie's body was removed, Mary, who had moved back into the Westwood house in 1999 with her mother, Emma, inventoried the items in the cotton-gin office and took them to Westwood. That same day, Mary made arrangements for Eddie's funeral and paid the initial $3,000. Eddie's funeral expenses totaled $8,966. Although Adele agreed to be responsible for the costs of Eddie's funeral, Adele never paid any portion of those costs. Mary and Emma paid the remaining funeral expenses, and the funeral home assigned to Mary its claim against Eddie's estate for those expenses.

In May 2005, Poellnitz informed Mary that he had been appointed administrator of Eddie's estate, and he requested a time when he could take possession of Eddie's personal items. Mary delivered the items to Poellnitz's office. When Poellnitz filed the complaint in this matter, he claimed that several guns, numerous tools, furniture, china, sterling silver, antique fly-fishing rods, and a gas grill belonging to Eddie remained in Mary's possession. The complaint alleged that the items had an approximate value of $25,000.

Mary responded in detail regarding the items Poellnitz claimed belonged to Eddie. Mary stated, in the alternative, that the

154 So.3d 984

items were not at Westwood; that they had been paid for by, and belonged to, Westwood; or that the items had previously been stolen from the cotton-gin office. At trial, Mary testified that, after this action was filed in May 2005, she had been instructed by her attorney not to return any of the items still in her possession until the issues could be resolved in the litigation.

In addition to the items that Emma and Mary had removed from the cotton-gin office, Eddie had furniture at the Westwood house that had been left there by him. After Eddie died, according to Mary, Poellnitz agreed that the Beasley branch could purchase the furniture for an agreed-upon price of $1,000. Because Eddie's estate owed the Beasley branch quite a bit of money, Mary agreed to give a $1,000 credit against the debt owed in exchange for the furniture.

On May 13, 2005, the Young branch sued Emma, individually and as trustee, and Mary, individually, alleging conversion of Eddie's personal property and demanding an accounting of the Trust. The Beasley branch answered the complaint and denied the allegations. The Beasley branch filed a counterclaim seeking recovery on assorted debts totaling $79,395 allegedly owed by the Young branch to the Beasley branch and attaching various documents evidencing those debts. In its counterclaim, the Beasley branch also named Veronica Young, Billy's wife, as a counterclaim defendant, alleging that certain sums were owed to the Beasley branch and the Trust by both Billy and Veronica.

The Young branch then amended its complaint, alleging, in addition to another claim not relevant to this appeal, mismanagement of the Trust by the trustee, Emma, and...

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