Elder abuse: Trustee's changes to trust prior to mother's death are challenged. $1.15M. San Francisco County.

The Case

  • Case Name: In Re: Trust of Delia I. Palma, Deceased: Delia M. Palma-Hauser, Petitioner, v. James C. Palma, individually and James C. Palma as Trustee of the Delia I. Palma Revocable Living Trust
  • Court and Case Number: San Francisco Superior Court / Case No. PTR-16-300126
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Wednesday, April 25, 2018
  • Date Action was Filed: Monday, August 29, 2016
  • Type of Case: Elder Abuse, Wills and Probate
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Charlene Kiesselbach
  • Plaintiffs:
    Delia Palma-Hauser, 64, fragrance sales representative. (Petitioner.)
  • Defendants:
    James Palma, 59, retired. (Respondent.)
  • Type of Result: Jury Verdict

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: $1,152,500
  • Net Verdict or Award: $1,375,000 (Attorney fees and costs per stipulated settlement: $222,500)
  • Award as to each Defendant:

    Award was against James Palma individually and as Trustee of the Delia I. Palma Trust.

  • Economic Damages:


  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 16 court days.
  • Jury Deliberation Time: 6 hours.
  • Jury Polls: 11-1 on liability, mixed on damage questions.
  • Post Trial Motions & Post-Verdict Settlements: See additional notes at end of report.

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:

    Law Office of Brian J. O’Grady by Brian J. O’Grady, Mountain View.

  • Attorney for the Defendant:

    Law Offices of John Kithas by John Kithas, San Francisco.

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    Petitioner Delia Palma-Hauser (known as “Dahlia”) and the Respondent James C. Palma (“James”) are the two children of the decedent Delia I. Palma who died in 2016 at age 100. The decedent executed various estate planning documents from 2002 through May of 2012 that left the decedent’s estate (minus a few small gifts to others) to her two children in equal shares. One month after making the May 2012 trust update, James arranged for an attorney new to the family to amend the trust again to leave the decedent’s home (largest estate asset) to James, to the exclusion of his sister. Then in 2015, James arranged for another trust amendment that left the entire estate ($2,305,000) to himself.

    James defended the undue influence claim on the grounds that his mother had sufficient testamentary capacity to understand the contested trust amendments, that his mother intended to reward him for his care for her in her last years of her life.

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    Dahlia contested the trust amendments on the basis that James, who was the main caretaker for the decedent in her last five to ten years of life, had procured the contested amendments by the exercise of undue influence over decedent. She alleged that James falsely represented to the decedent that Dahlia didn’t care for her or love her, had stolen money from her and that Dahlia didn’t need any money. It was also alleged that James convinced his mother that he needed a home to live in (he did not intend to work again) and that the May 2012 trust amendment would have eventually allowed Dahlia to sell the decedent’s home or convert it to a tenants- in-common ownership that would pose financial risks for him.

    Plaintiff brought claims of Financial Elder Abuse under the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (EADACPA)

  • Defendant's Contentions:

    James defended the undue influence claim on the grounds that his mother had sufficient testamentary capacity to understand the contested trust amendments; his mother intended to provide him with a home to live in for the rest of his life with low property taxes and no mortgage; that his mother had become disaffected from his sister and that the gift of the entire estate was made in gratitude for the wonderful care that he provided to her during her final years.

    James called the decedent’s pastor of many years to attest to the decedent’s love and gratitude for her son. The defense also called a number of neighbors, caretakers, and church members who all testified as the wonderful care James provided for his mother and her intention to reward him for that care. 

Demands and Offers

  • Plaintiff Final Demand before Trial: At mediation: $350,000
  • Defendant §998 Offer: $50,000 after mediation in February of 2018.
  • Defendant Final Offer before Trial: $50,000
  • Defendant Offer during Trial: $100,000

Additional Notes

Petitioner was entitled to costs and attorney fees based on the jury verdict on the Financial Elder Abuse claim brought under the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (EADACPA).  Parties agreed to settle cost and fee claim for $222,500. Petitioner also had non-jury claims to impose constructive trust and to set aside a deed that Trustee James Palma had executed conveying the decedent’s home to himself. The parties stipulated post-verdict to set aside the deed and restore the property to the trust. The property is to be sold to satisfy the judgment.

By order of the court the jury was not interviewed post-verdict. However, counsel for petitioner believes that the principal factors in the jury’s verdict were the respondent’s admissions that he had disparaged his sister to the decedent, his poor demeanor on the stand and his several attempts in his trial testimony to make key changes and add newly remembered facts to his deposition testimony.

Petitioner asked the jury to award $1,152,500 and the respondent asked for a defense verdict of $0.