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Williamson v. Prasciunas

May 20, 2003

PATRICIA ROGERS WILLIAMSON, A/K/A PATRICIA ROGERS, RESPONDENT,
v.
ROBERT PRASCIUNAS, ET AL., APPELLANTS.



Affirmed Poritsky, Judge*fn1 Hennepin County District Court File No. MC0113443

Considered and decided by Minge, Presiding Judge, Kalitowski, Judge, and Poritsky, Judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

When a person converts property owned by another and fraudulently conceals a fact essential to the owner's action for conversion, the statute of limitations is tolled until the owner discovers the essential fact or, by the exercise of due diligence, should have discovered the essential fact.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Poritsky, Judge

OPINION

Appellants Robert and Rebecca Prasciunas challenge (1) the district court's decision to award respondent Patricia Rogers Williamson damages for civil conversion and (2) the court's valuation of the property at issue. Respondent notes review of the district court's denial of her motion to amend the complaint to seek punitive damages. Because we conclude that the district court: (1) properly ruled that appellants' fraudulent concealment tolled the statute of limitations, (2) correctly valued the property, and (3) acted within its discretion when it denied punitive damages, we affirm in all respects.

FACTS

On June 29, 1987, respondent Patricia Rogers Williamson, then known as Patricia Rogers, sold her Edina home to appellants Robert and Rebecca Prasciunas. Due to complications with Williamson's new home, she arranged a rental agreement with the Prasciunases until July 6, 1987. According to Williamson, the moving van that she had scheduled to arrive for 8:00 a.m. that day did not arrive until 1:00 p.m., causing her moving-out to overlap with the Prasciunases' moving-in. Apparently, appellant Robert Prasciunas was very upset over this turn of events.

The home contained a small wall safe in the basement. In the safe Williamson had two pieces of diamond jewelry: a diamond solitaire ring from a previous marriage and an heirloom diamond-encrusted watch that Williamson had inherited from her mother. Before leaving, Williamson tried to remove her jewelry from the safe but could not open it. Her son assisted her, but their efforts were unsuccessful. Williamson asked Mr. Prasciunas to help, but he, too, could not open the safe. Before Williamson left, she entrusted the Prasciunases with the safe's combination and told them that she was leaving some jewelry in the safe.

According to the Praciunases, Williamson called them the next day to see if they had opened the safe. They denied opening the safe. Williamson claimed that she called three times over the next two weeks to arrange a time for a locksmith to open the safe, but could not arrange a convenient time to do so. Two years passed before she sought return of her jewelry. In July 1989, Mr. Prasciunas admitted to Williamson that he had opened the safe but claimed there was no jewelry in it. He told Williamson, "It's not like there were diamonds or anything in there." Williamson sought legal advice. Her attorney advised Williamson that her only recourse was to file a criminal complaint with local authorities. On July 17, 1989, Williamson filed a complaint with the Edina Police Department in an attempt to get her jewelry back. In this complaint, Williamson listed the total value of the jewelry at $12,000. When the Edina police questioned the Prasciunases, they denied knowledge or possession of the jewelry. Unable to substantiate Williamson's claims, the investigating officer told her there was nothing else they could do. After the Edina police completed their investigation, Mr. Praciunas called Williamson and threatened her with a lawsuit for harassment. In the call, he was abusive and screamed at her never to contact him or his wife again.*fn2

Nearly twelve years passed. On March 1, 2001, Ms. Prasciunas's sister contacted Williamson with news that the Prasciunases did, in fact, have possession of the jewelry. Williamson reported this to the Edina Police Department. When confronted with this knowledge, the Prasciunases turned over the jewelry to the police. The Edina police returned the jewelry to Williamson and, at their request, she had the jewelry appraised at a total value of $12,000.

Williamson initiated the present proceeding in July 2001, claiming conversion, theft, intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), and defamation.*fn3 The Prasciunases did not file an answer, but responded by filing a motion to dismiss on the ground that the statute of limitations barred Williamson's claims. The district court denied the Prasciunases' motion to dismiss.

Subsequently, the Prasciunases filed a summary judgment motion, again asserting, inter alia, that Williamson's claim for conversion was barred by the statute of limitations. Williamson filed a responsive motion seeking summary judgment on her conversion claim and permission to amend her complaint to ask for punitive damages. The district court rejected the Prasciunases' statute of limitations defense and granted summary judgment for Williamson on her conversion claim. Specifically, the district court reasoned that, because the Prasciunases steadfastly denied possession of Williamson's jewelry, they fraudulently concealed any cause of action she may have had. The district court explained that, had Williamson filed suit in 1989, any conversion claim would likely have been dismissed. As to the parties' other claims, the district court granted summary judgment for the Prasciunases on Williamson's claims for IIED because it found that she had failed to meet the high evidentiary threshold required to submit that claim to a fact-finder. The court also granted summary judgment for the Prasciunases on Williamson's claim for defamation because the two-year statute of limitations on her defamation claim had expired. Finally, the court denied Williamson's motion seeking to add a claim for punitive damages. This appeal followed.

ISSUES

I. Did the district court properly rule that appellants' fraudulent concealment of the theft tolled the statute of limitations?

II. Did the district court properly set the value of the jewelry at $12,000?

III. Did the district court act within its discretion when it denied respondent's motion for ...


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