Court of Appeals decides two cases addressing Guardians, Conservators and fiduciary duty
This week the mid-level court issued two opinions that related to the duties and burdens of persons serving in a fiduciary capacity. In one case, Sutter v. Thomas Brennan Fraser, the court ruled that a court-appointed guardian owed no duty to protect the interests of the incompetent person's spouse. The spouse had sued the Guardian and Conservator, arguing that he caused her substantial financial expense by failing to pursue VA benefits for her husband--resulting in expenses of more than $600,000.00 that she now owed. The spouse also claimed that the Guardian approved the discontinuation of life support prematurely.
The Court held that Fraser, the Guardian and Conservator, owed no duty to the spouse or to any "Interested Person" and that she lacking standing to sue him for any mis-management of her husband's affairs. The Court held that only the Personal Representative of the Estate enjoyed standing to act on the wife's issues.
In the second case, Pirgu v. USAA, the Court was required to review an award of fees and costs against USAA after it wrongfully denied PIP benefits to Lindita Pirgu's ward, Feridon. The trial judge had awarded $70,000.00 in attendant care benefits, wage loss and interest, along with $23,000.00 in attorney's fees. At the family's attorney's request, it also ruled that on future benefits, however, it concluded that no further benefits would be due.
The family appealed the amount of fees awarded and also objected to the "premature" discontinuation of PIP benefits. The Court noted that although the issue of future PIP benefits was not "ripe" and should not have been addressed, the family's lawyer "invited" this error and therefore could not appeal the propriety of the decison. A majority of the panel also ruled that the judge's award of fees was not an "abuse of discretion," even though the judge did not explicitly consider all of the factors which the Supreme Court has enumerated for consideration when making a fee decision.
The full Court reversed the trial judge's refusal to award attorney's fees for the work done by Pirgu's attorney on her behalf in the role of Guardian and Conservator. The Court noted that prior cases strongly reinforced the PIP insurer's duty to pay for servcies necessitated by the Guardian's role in securing and supervising medical services for a motor vehicle car accident victim.