The New Jersey Appellate Division refuses to impose damages on influencer despite clear finding of undue influence

In a decision of the New Jersey Appellate Division in the seminal Stockdale Will Contest case (196 N.J. 275 (2008)), the Court refused to impose compensatory or punitive damages against the influencer, Ronald Sollitto, or his attorney, Anthony Casale, despite the finding of undue influence surrounding Stockdale’s Will and the transfer of her home to Sollitto.

In the underlying Will contest, the Spring Lake First Aid Squad, a beneficiary under Stockdale’s prior Will, successfully challenged as a product of undue influence Decedent’s 2000 Will and the inter vivos sale/transfer of her house to Sollitto.  The trial Court admitted a prior Will to probate, rescinded the sale of the house to Sollitto, and awarded punitive damages of $1.174 million in legal fees incurred by the Squad against Sollitto and Casale.  On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the award of punitive damages and instead ordered the Squad’s fees paid from the Estate.

The Supreme Court granted certification and ultimately agreed that the counsel fees were not recoverable as a form of punitive damages, distinguishing the case from In re Niles.  The Supreme Court also held that punitive damages could not be awarded absent an award of compensatory damages.  With that said, the Supreme Court decided to remand the matter back to the trial Court on the punitive damages claim noting that the following facts support a basis for the award of punitive damages, Sollitto and Casale were strangers to Decedent, they engaged in undue influence, a tort-based remedy was sought in the underlying Complaint, and the loss of the Squad could not be addressed through the ordinary probate process.

On remand, the trial Court decided that there was no basis for an award of compensatory damages and therefore no basis for punitive damages.  The Court ordered the fees paid from the Estate.  The Court denied the Squad’s claim that it had lost money in the delayed transfer of Decedent’s home result of the litigation, as the Squad in fact received an amount equal to their claimed loss when they subsequently sold the property.

In this context, an experienced Will Contest Attorney in New Jersey can make all the difference.  Counsel must navigate through the initial filing of the pleadings, the all important discovery and depositions, and then be prepared to bring the matter to trial.  While cases often settle before trial, the actual costs to prepare for trial often compels an early settlement, and the proper choice of counsel is imperative to achieving a quick resolution.

Russell J. Fishkind, Esq. and Ronald P. Colicchio, Esq. at Saul Ewing, LLP rfishkind@saul.com (609)452-5043                                                    rcolicchio@saul.com (609)452-3133