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Vermont Suit Raises Liability Issue

Woman faces property loss because of her loan to reckless nephew

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LUELLA WILSON, an elderly widow from Vermont, never dreamed she would be fighting a legal battle to keep her life savings and her home. The tiny, white-haired woman feels cheated by a legal system which found her liable for $950,000 in a precedent-setting lawsuit. A state Supreme Court decision backed a lower jury court ruling that found Mrs. Wilson guilty of ``negligent entrustment'' because she lent her grandnephew money to buy a car.

A few weeks after she lent him $6,300, the grandnephew, Willard Stuart, drove the car off a bridge in an accident after he had been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. One of the passengers, Mark Vince, was injured in the crash. Mr. Vince later sued Mrs. Wilson for lending the money to her grandnephew.

Wilson is afraid of losing everything she owns including her Vermont home where she has lived for more than 50 years. Since her insurance company has refused to pay the liability settlement, her assets have been frozen except for a modest amount of money for her to live on. But Wilson says it is not enough and feels she should not be held responsibile for an accident of which she had no part.

``They froze every bank account I had in town,'' she says. ``I began to wonder how I was going to live.''

The Wilson case raises important questions because it extends liability to the act of lending money, says David Evans, chairman of the Alcoholism and Drug Law Reform Committee of the American Bar Association. Should banks check a person's driving record before lending money for a car? Are banks liable for lending to companies that are polluters? ``This could have a chilling effect on the economy,'' he says.

Wilson, who was home the evening of the accident, has never met Vince and feels she has been targeted because of her money. Over the years, she and her husband have lived a comfortable, at times flamboyant, lifestyle. Together they owned and managed a dude ranch in North Bennington, a night club in Troy, N.Y., and a hotel in Miami.

In her younger days she would accompany her father on hunting trips and she brags of being the first woman in town to own a motorcycle. Her living room is decorated with a collection of statues, paintings, family photographs, and stuffed animals.

But she worries she will have to give up all of her belongings to pay the liability cost.

``I think about it day and night,'' she says.

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