The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday upheld a jury verdict requiring the trustee of a fund for the descendants of Coca-Cola Co. founder Asa Candler to restore more than $1.1 million to the trust.
The justices said the corporate trustee, Reliance Trust Co., had waived its challenges to the verdict by agreeing to jury instructions and a verdict form that were at odds with its argument on appeal. However, the justices agreed with Reliance that a Fulton County judge had added about $206,000 too much to the jury’s verdict.
The ruling upholding the verdict is a win for eight grandchildren of Charles “Buddy” Candler III, the grandson of Asa Candler. The eight grandchildren complained that, before Buddy Candler’s death in 2005, Reliance made improper disbursements to Buddy Candler from the trust set up by his wife.
By finding Reliance had waived its arguments against the verdict, the Supreme Court left for another day questions the bank had raised about the interpretation of a new trust statute adopted by the state Legislature in 2010.
The lawyer for Buddy Candler’s grandchildren, Craig Frankel, said the case will go back to Fulton Superior Court Judge Constance Russell to issue an award reduced by the $206,000 interest overcharge from an earlier stage in the six-year-old litigation. But since interest has continued to run on the verdict, he said the total award minus the overcharge stood at about $2.19 million through Oct. 31, including $372,411 Reliance had spent out of the trust in defending itself.
The legal fight was over a marital trust that was established by Buddy Candler’s wife, Claire Clement Candler, in 1996. Under the trust’s terms, Buddy Candler was to be provided any income the trust generated, but the principal was not to be expended unless the trustee deemed that the income Buddy Candler received from the trust and other sources was insufficient to support his living needs.
Claire Candler died the following year, and Buddy Candler remarried in 1999. His four children had their father declared incompetent and took over the trust, according to a pretrial order in the case, but Buddy Candler successfully sued to regain control.
In 2001, Buddy Candler placed control of the trust with Reliance, with himself as co-trustee. At the time, the trust principal was worth $2.1 million. Buddy Candler had his children removed as beneficiaries, naming his eight grandchildren as beneficiaries instead.
By the time Buddy Candler died in 2005 at the age of 75, the trust was down to $838,762 due to distributions Reliance allowed him to take to cover his living expenses as well as legal bills for the competency fight with his children.
The eight grandchildren sued Reliance, alleging the distributions were improper. Frankel has said that, at the time of Claire Candler’s death, there still was about $7.5 million in Buddy and Claire Candler’s joint account, and the family anticipated Buddy Candler would be able to live on his own money and the trust income so the trust principal would go to the children and grandchildren when Buddy Candler died.
Reliance responded that it had denied many of Buddy Candler’s requests for distributions. It contended that although Buddy Candler was accustomed to a wealthy lifestyle, he also had given away to his children many of his assets and sources of income and had encountered unexpected expenses due to litigation with his family.
In 2010, a Fulton jury decided Reliance owed the grandchildren $1,140,924 in damages. It also said Reliance had to pay what it had spent out of the trust in defending itself, which Reliance had agreed was $372,411, according to Frankel. Russell also awarded more than $535,000 in pre-judgment interest, running from the date of each disbursement from the trust.
Reliance appealed both the verdict and the interest calculation, decisions that were affirmed by a Court of Appeals panel of Judges M. Yvette Miller, John Ellington and Sara Doyle. The Supreme Court agreed to take up the case, leading to Monday’s unanimous ruling authored by Justice Robert Benham.
Reliance had argued on appeal that, under the 2010 trust code revisions that went into effect after the case was tried but before the bank filed its motion for a new trial, the trust language gave it absolute discretion to make distributions and thus it was required to act only in good faith. Reliance said it should not be liable because the jury specifically found it had not acted in bad faith.
But the justices said Reliance had waived this argument by agreeing to jury instructions based on a different legal standard.
“Reliance requested a jury instruction that permitted a finding of liability for misconduct other than bad faith alone,” wrote Benham. He wrote that the justices agreed with the Court of Appeals panel that the evidence supported a finding that Reliance’s decisions were “infected with … arbitrariness” and “oppression” of the trust’s beneficiaries. “Error in the verdict, if any, was created by Reliance’s request for an instruction it now asserts is not appropriate to the facts and resulted in the jury applying what it now asserts is an incorrect standard of review of its exercise of discretion.”
Similarly, the justices rejected Reliance’s argument that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding that it breached its duties with respect to each and every one of the 19 challenged distributions to Buddy Candler. But Benham wrote that Reliance had consented to giving the jury a general verdict form that did not allow it to make special findings on the issues of breach and damages as to each distribution.
On the issue of interest, however, the Supreme Court agreed with Reliance that Buddy Candler’s grandchildren were entitled to interest on the damages running only from the date of Buddy Candler’s death.
“In this case, had there been no breach, upon the death of Mr. Candler the value of the trust assets would have been the remaining value of the corpus of the trust plus the amount of the principal distributions the jury found were improperly distributed to Mr. Candler and awarded to the remainder beneficiaries,” wrote Benham. “Pursuant to the terms of the trust instrument, any interest that would have accrued on those assets had they not been distributed to Mr. Candler would have been paid to Mr. Candler as the life beneficiary. They would not have increased the value of the corpus of the trust. To award interest from the date of each improper distribution would create a windfall by placing the remainder beneficiaries in a better position than if there had been no breach.”
On remand, wrote Benham, the trial judge must enter a new interest award, with interest running from the date of Buddy Candler’s death.
Frankel, who tried the case with colleagues at Gaslowitz Frankel and defended the verdict before the Supreme Court in May, said on Monday that he was “thrilled” but “not particularly surprised.” He said the Supreme Court had been consistent in its rulings about preserving arguments for appeal.
He said the decision is significant for what it leaves unanswered—the questions raised by Reliance about the impact of the 2010 law on the standard of care for a trustee of a so-called absolute discretion trust.
William Custer, who tried the case for Reliance with colleagues at Bryan Cave and handled the Supreme Court argument, said his client was disappointed with the outcome. “But it’s always difficult to reverse a jury’s verdict,” he said, “and the bank is looking forward to moving ahead with its business.”