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Civil Practice – New Trial Motion – Damages – Trusts & Estates – Contract – Unjust Enrichment

This case arises out of the defendant-ex-boyfriend’s receipt of assets from the intestate decedent’s estate. Although the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting the motion for a new trial on the issue of damages filed by plaintiff, the decedent’s son and sole heir, the trial court lacked the authority to unilaterally amend the amount of damages awarded by the jury. It is true that the parties stipulated to the amount of money that defendant received from insurance commissions payable to the decedent’s designated beneficiary (plaintiff); however, this was not a stipulation as to the amount of damages. Had the stipulation been to damages, there would have been no need to ask the jury to determine damages.

We affirm the trial court’s order granting plaintiff’s motion for a new trial but vacate the order amending the jury verdict and remand the case for a new trial as to the amount of damages only. Furthermore, we vacate the order granting summary judgment on defendant’s unjust enrichment claim to the extent that defendant used his own personal assets to pay expenses on plaintiff’s property but affirm the orders and judgments in all other respects.

Shortly after the decedent’s death, defendant had the then 21-year-old plaintiff sign an agreement purporting to assign to defendant certain assets from the decedent’s estate. Defendant unsuccessfully sought a jury instruction on the duty to read an instrument.

The duty to read an instrument or to have it read before signing it is a positive one, and the failure to do so, in the absence of any mistake, fraud, or oppression, is a circumstance against which no relief may be had. Here, fraud was at issue because one of plaintiff’s claims was for actual fraud based on defendant’s misrepresentation of the contents of the agreement. Accordingly, the duty to read instruction was improper, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to provide it.

In any event, the agreement was without consideration because there was no bargained-for exchange. The agreement specifically granted defendant the decedent’s residence, her car, and the commissions due from her employer, but provides nothing to plaintiff other than the life insurance policy to which he was already entitled. Therefore, there could be no bargained for exchange on the part of plaintiff because there was no reciprocity of inducements. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s granting of plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, which dismissed defendant’s breach of contract claim, because there was no genuine issue of fact as to consideration.

Although any claim against the estate is barred by the statute of limitations, there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether plaintiff individually was unjustly enriched by some payments defendant made towards the decedent’s residence and vehicle. Defendant specifically alleged that these payments were “not gratuitously” made. Furthermore, these payments conferred a benefit to plaintiff, who was the owner of, and resided in, the house which he inherited from his mother while defendant made these payments, and these payments are readily measurable.

However, there is also evidence in the form of an admission by defendant that he used assets from an account of a non-party to make certain of these payments, and he would therefore not be entitled to recover those payments in a claim for unjust enrichment. Accordingly, to the extent that defendant can show that he made payments from his individual assets for the benefit of plaintiff’s property, summary judgment was improper with respect to defendant’s unjust enrichment claim and is hereby vacated.

Affirmed in part, vacated in part and remanded.

Davis v. Woods (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-202-22, 28 pp.) (John Arrowood, J.) Appealed from Cabarrus County Superior Court (Stephen Futrell & Lora Cubbage, JJ.) Elliot Aus and Chad Archer for plaintiff; Donna Savage for defendant. 2022-NCCOA-780

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