Bank of America Corp. and a debt collector it hired to go after deceased customers' debts violated state law by repeatedly calling a Florida woman about paying the credit card bill of her late husband, a Florida state court judge ruled this month.
Judge Keith R. Kyle in Lee County found that collection attempts by West Asset Management amounted to harassment.
The ruling clears the way for the plaintiff to get punitive damages from the unit of West Corp., and Bank of America. A civil jury will determine the size of the award next year.
The case could discourage lenders from using collectors to get money from surviving relatives, according to state court judges. "A decision like this is very rare," says Peter Evans, a state court judge in Palm Beach County, Fla.
The companies declined to comment. Judge Kyle did not return calls for comment.
Bank of America and other major U.S. lenders hand over accounts of the deceased to firms specializing in death-debt collection. The collection firms then press family members for payments, even though they have no legal obligation to do so.
In a 2010 investigation of the industry, the Federal Trade Commission found that some death-debt collectors flout federal and state laws by duping relatives into thinking that they have to pay the debts of the deceased.
Survivors typically have no legal obligation unless they co-signed a loan.
The latest ruling is part of an August lawsuit, filed by Linda Long, a retired office worker, alleging that the bank and the debt collection firm harassed her by calling as many as 10 times a day about $16,651.52 that her husband Millard had accumulated on a Bank of America credit card before his death from colon cancer in March 2010.
Long was the subject of a Wall Street Journal article in November about collecting debts left by people who die.
Bank of America won't say how much debt-recovery work is outsourced to collection firms focused on death-debt collection. The bank says it complies with all applicable laws.
William Howard, Long's lawyer, called the judge's ruling a "stunning victory for Mrs. Long and other widows and family members."