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Undue Influence

15 January, 2016 - 09:32

Hodge v. Shea

168 S.E.2d 82 (S.C. 1969)

Brailsford, J.

In this equitable action the circuit court decreed specific performance of a contract for the sale of land, and the defendant has appealed. The plaintiff is a physician, and the contract was prepared and executed in his medical office on August 19, 1965. The defendant had been plaintiff’s patient for a number of years. On the contract date, he was seventy-five years of age, was an inebriate of long standing, and was afflicted by grievous chronic illnesses, including arteriosclerosis, cirrhosis of the liver, neuritises, arthritis of the spine and hip and varicose veins of the legs. These afflictions and others required constant medication and frequent medical attention, and rendered him infirm of body and mind, although not to the point of incompetency to contract.

During the period immediately before and after August 19, 1965, George A. Shea, the defendant, was suffering a great deal of pain in his back and hip and was having difficulty in voiding. He was attended professionally by the plaintiff, Dr. Joseph Hodge, either at the Shea home, at the doctor’s office or in the hospital at least once each day from August 9 through August 26, 1965, except for August 17. The contract was signed during the morning of August 19. One of Dr. Hodge’s frequent house calls was made on the afternoon of that day, and Mr. Shea was admitted to the hospital on August 21, where he remained until August 25.

Mr. Shea was separated from his wife and lived alone. He was dependent upon Dr. Hodge for house calls, which were needed from time to time. His relationship with his physician, who sometimes visited him as a friend and occasionally performed non-professional services for him, was closer than ordinarily arises from that of patient and physician.…

“Where a physician regularly treats a chronically ill person over a period of two years, a confidential relationship is established, raising a presumption that financial dealings between them are fraudulent.” [Citation]

A 125 acre tract of land near Mr. Shea’s home, adjacent to land which was being developed as residential property, was one of his most valuable and readily salable assets. In 1962, the developer of this contiguous land had expressed to Mr. Shea an interest in it at $1000.00 per acre. A firm offer of this amount was made in November, 1964, and was refused by Mr. Shea on the advice of his son-in-law that the property was worth at least $1500.00 per acre. Negotiations between the developer and Mr. Ransdell commenced at that time and were in progress when Mr. Shea, at the instance of Dr. Hodge and without consulting Mr. Ransdell or anyone else, signed the contract of August 19, 1965. Under this contract Dr. Hodge claims the right to purchase twenty choice acres of the 125 acre tract for a consideration calculated by the circuit court to be the equivalent of $361.72 per acre. The market value of the land on the contract date has been fixed by an unappealed finding of the master at $1200.00 per acre.…

The consideration was expressed in the contract between Dr. Hodge and Mr. Shea as follows:

The purchase price being (Cadillac Coupe DeVille 6600) & $4000.00 Dollars, on the following terms: Dr. Joseph Hodge to give to Mr. George Shea a new $6600 coupe DeVille Cadillac which is to be registered in name of Mr. George A. Shea at absolutely no cost to him. In return, Mr. Shea will give to Dr. Joe Hodge his 1964 Cadillac coupe DeVille and shall transfer title of this vehicle to Dr. Hodge. Further, Dr. Joseph Hodge will pay to Mr. George A. Shea the balance of $4000.00 for the 20 acres of land described above subject to survey, title check, less taxes on purchase of vehicle.

Dr. Hodge was fully aware of Mr. Shea’s financial troubles, the liens on his property and his son-in-law’s efforts in his behalf. He was also aware of his patient’s predilection for new Cadillacs. Although he was not obligated to do so until the property was cleared of liens, which was not accomplished until the following June, Dr. Hodge hastened to purchase a 1965 Cadillac Coupe DeVille and delivered it to Mr. Shea on the day after his discharge from the hospital on August 25, 1965. If he acted in haste in an effort to fortify what he must have realized was a dubious contract, he has so far succeeded.…

The case at hand is attended by gross inadequacy of consideration, serious impairment of the grantor’s mentality from age, intemperance and disease, and a confidential relationship between the grantee and grantor. Has the strong presumption of vitiating unfairness arising from this combination of circumstances been overcome by the evidence? We must conclude that it has not. The record is devoid of any evidence suggesting a reason, compatible with fairness, for Mr. Shea’s assent to so disadvantageous a bargain. Disadvantageous not only because of the gross disparity between consideration and value, but because of the possibility that the sale would impede the important negotiations in which Mr. Ransdell was engaged. Unless his memory failed him, Mr. Shea knew that his son-in-law expected to sell the 125 acre tract for about $1500.00 per acre as an important step toward raising sufficient funds to satisfy the tax and judgment liens against the Shea property. These circumstances furnish strong evidence that Mr. Shea’s assent to the contract, without so much as notice to Mr. Ransdell, was not the product of a deliberate Exercise of an informed judgment.…

Finally, on this phase of the case, it would be naive not to recognize that the 1965 Cadillac was used to entice a highly susceptible old man into a hard trade. Mr. Shea was fatuously fond of new Cadillacs, but was apparently incapable of taking care of one. His own 1964 model (he had also had a 1963 model) had been badly abused. According to Dr. Hodge, it ‘smelled like a toilet. * * * had several fenders bumped, bullet holes in the top and the car was just filthy * * *. It was a rather foul car.’…Knowing the condition of Mr. Shea’s car, his financial predicament and the activities of his son-in-law in his behalf, Dr. Hodge used the new automobile as a means of influencing Mr. Shea to agree to sell. The means was calculated to becloud Mr. Shea’s judgment, and, under the circumstances, its use was unfair.…

Reversed and remanded.


1. Why is it relevant that Mr. Shea was separated from his wife and lived alone?

2. Why is it relevant that it was his doctor who convinced him to sell the real estate?

3. Why did the doctor offer the old man a Cadillac as part of the deal?

4. Generally speaking, if you agree to sell your real estate for less than its real value, that’s just a unilateral mistake and the courts will grant no relief. What’s different here?