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Probate litigation: Jury awards $8 billion in punitive damages

In Ohio as in other states, heirs of an estate may bring probate litigation to challenge management of the estate that has led to improper financial losses for them. In a shocking verdict in another state, a jury awarded $8 billion in punitive damages to the estate and heirs of an American Airlines executive. The probate litigation award was entered against JPMorgan Chase & Co., the institution hired to manage the estate.

The case was decided in September but is currently being fought on appeal. The decedent was an American Airlines executive who had created a reservation system for the airline. He died without a will and with $19 million in assets. One of the complaints by the heirs was that the bank took several years to release the decedent's personal property, including 6,700 golf putters, 900 bottles of wine, jewelry, and fine art.

A bank or other personal representative owes the estate and heirs a fiduciary duty to act with due care and competently in handling the estate's affairs. The heirs complained also that the bank had missed various financial deadlines regarding estate assets, allowed stock options to expire and ignored the instructions of the widow to sell her shares. Chase filed an appeal of the probate court jury award.

In the meantime, the widow asked the court to reduce her award to $14.4 million and the stepchildren have requested a reduction to about $70 million. Chase stated that it acted in good faith and expected the award to be reversed. The verdict was the ninth-largest in U.S. history. Although Ohio probate courts are not accustomed to seeing huge and excessive punitive damages awards in probate litigation cases, there are many cases filed each year in which breach of a fiduciary duty is claimed against the personal representative.

Source: msn.com, "JPMorgan $8 Billion Jury Loss to Widow Faces Massive Reduction", Tom Korosec and Margaret Cronin Fisk, March 31, 2018

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