In this week’s Alabama Law Weekly Update, we bring you two cases from the Alabama Supreme Court. The first case addresses when a surviving spouse must file for an elective share of an estate, holding that the election or request for extension must occur before the statutory cut-off. In the second case, a $1.5 million jury award of anticipated lost profits relating to a promissory fraud claim was reversed for lack of sufficient evidence to support the jury’s award when only speculative evidence of future use and profits was offered at trial.
Saylor v. Saylor, [Ms. 1120848, Dec. 5, 2014], — So. 3d — (Ala. December 5, 2014)
In this case, the surviving wife of the deceased sought to extend the time period for taking her “elective share” of the estate. Alabama law permits a spouse of a deceased “elect” to take a statutory share of the estate. If no election is made, the spouse generally inherits according to the terms of the will. When an estate is probated, the surviving spouse must make this election within six months or request the Probate Court to extend the time to do so.
In Saylor, the surviving spouse did request an extension to make the election but only after the six-month time period had expired. She subsequently claimed the elective share. The Probate Court granted the extension and allowed the elective share over the objection of the estate’s personal representative. The personal representative then removed the case to Circuit Court and contested the spousal share election. The Circuit Court set-aside the extension and denied the claim for the elective share, finding the extension and election were outside the statutory time period. The surviving spouse appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court.
The surviving spouse first argued that allowance of the elective share by the Probate Court was a final order requiring an appeal. Because the personal representative did not appeal the allowance of the elective share by the Probate Court, the surviving spouse argued the issue could not be challenged or altered in the Circuit Court. The Alabama Supreme Court rejected this claim, holding that an allowance of an elective share is not a final, appealable order unless it ascertains the amount and compels the payment of the elective share.
The Court then addressed whether the surviving spouse could still take an elective share, or obtain an extension to do so, after the six-month period had expired. The Court was unpersuaded by the surviving spouse’s equitable arguments for an exception, holding the statute required strict compliance to either obtain an extension or claim the elective share before the expiration of the six-month statutory limit.
Deng v. Scroggins, [Ms. 1121415, Dec. 5, 2014], — So. 3d — (Ala. December 5, 2014)
In this case, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed a $1.5 million jury award, holding that the damages were speculative and not supported by the evidence at trial. The plaintiff, an inventor of an LED lamp tube, claimed he was defrauded when the defendants agreed to also list the plaintiffs’ name on a patent application but did not do so, essentially stealing ownership of the invention.
The Alabama Supreme Court reversed the jury’s award of $1.5 million in compensatory damages to the plaintiff. At trial, the plaintiff sought damages for the value of the product and potential sales as if plaintiff had been properly listed on the patent application. In support of these damages, the plaintiff testified the product was valued “in the millions.” The plaintiff also testified that a Wal-Mart display vendor was interested in the product and ordered samples for 25 Wal-Mart stores, valued at almost $90,000. Also at trial, the plaintiff testified that he expected the product to be similarly deployed in Target stores, but offered no basis for that statement. No other testimony or evidence was offered to support the anticipated lost profits.
In closing arguments, the plaintiffs’ attorney offered a formula based on the per-store value of the samples ordered multiplied by the total number of Wal-Mart stores, suggesting damages in excess of $18 million. The Alabama Supreme Court held that the testimony offered was “highly speculative” and “insufficient to justify the jury’s award of $1.5 million in compensatory damages.” The Court held that the damages were speculative both of the possible future uses of the product and the value of future sales, and the formula offered by plaintiff’s counsel was argument and not evidence supporting the damages award. The case was reversed and remanded to the trial court for a new trial on the issue.