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SOUTH CENTRAL BELL, A CORP., PAT SANTUCCI & MRS. V. MARCHETTI v. NANCY EPPS

JUNE 03, 1987

SOUTH CENTRAL BELL, A CORP., PAT SANTUCCI & MRS.
V.
MARCHETTI v. NANCY EPPS



BEFORE WALKER, C.J., SULLIVAN & ANDERSON, JJ.

SULLIVAN, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

I.

Once again this Court is asked to decide what is seemingly a never ending question: Is this case

 appropriate for the imposition of punitive damages? This question is brought to us today in a case involving an alleged wrongful disconnection of telephone services. Nancy Epps filed suit in the Circuit Court of Holmes County alleging that South Central Bell wrongfully terminated her telephone services causing her to suffer extreme mental anguish and other pain which necessitated hospitalization. She further alleged that Bell's conduct was willful, wanton, reckless, and intentional so as to demonstrate a disregard for her rights as a subscriber. She sought to recover both compensatory and punitive damages. South Central Bell denied liability arguing that its agents, Pat Santucci and Vivian Marchetti, acted lawfully and in accordance with the General Subscribers' Services Tariff in terminating Epps' telephone service.

 At trial, the jury found in favor of Epps and awarded her $75,000.00 in compensatory damages and $3,000,000.00 in punitive damages. From this decision, South Central Bell and its agents appeal and assign the following as error:

 I. The Court erred in denying the appellants' Motion for a Directed Verdict at the conclusion of plaintiff's case and in refusing to grant defendants a peremptory instruction;

 II. The lower court erred in holding that the defendants were liable for punitive damages and in admitting evidence of the financial worth of the defendants;

 III. The lower court erred in submitting the issue of punitive damages to the jury;

 IV. The verdict is the result of bias, passion and prejudice, and improper conduct and prejudicial statements by plaintiff's attorneys inflamed the bias, passions, and prejudices of the jury;

 V. The award of punitive damages violates the federal and state constitutions;

 VI. The award of punitive damages is grossly excessive and should be set aside;

 VII. The award of compensatory damages is grossly excessive and should be set aside;

 VIII. The court erred in its instructions to the

 jury, particularly in granting Instruction No. 5 requested by plaintiff;

 IX. The court erred in entering judgment for the plaintiff and against the defendants;

 X. The verdict and judgment are contrary to the overwhelming weight of the credible evidence; and

 XI. The court erred in denying defendants' Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the verdict, or, in the alternative, for a New Trial.

 For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the award of punitive damages and affirm the award of actual damages.

 II.

 Nancy Epps, a 79 year old widow, lived alone in her rural home in Mileston, Mississippi. Prior to November, 1980, Mrs. Epps had been a ten year subscriber to South Central Bell for telephone services and had achieved a class "A" credit rating. In November 1980, Mrs. Epps left her home due to illness. Between November and December of 1980, Mrs. Epps' grandson and son charged a number of phone calls to her phone and eventually ran up a bill between $700.00 and $800.00. The bill was left unpaid and her phone services were disconnected in 1981.

 In March 1981, Mrs. Epps and her daughter, Dr. Fannie Love, applied for reconnection of her telephone services at the Bell office in Greenwood, Mississippi. Theresa Bates, the business supervisor of the Greenwood Office, testified that at this meeting she agreed to waive a reconnection deposit after Mrs. Epps and Dr. Love explained the recent health problems that Mrs. Epps had suffered from and because Mrs. Epps had been a long standing customer with a good credit reputation. However, Bates readjusted Mrs. Epps credit rating to a "C" because of the excessive bill and because the bill had been left unpaid for nearly three months. Additionally, a $75.00 toll credit limit was placed on Mrs. Epps as a means from preventing her bill from becoming excessively high in the future. Finally, Dr. Love's Memphis telephone number was recorded on Mrs. Epps' account as a contact number in the event any additional problems should arise in the future. The phone was reconnected the next day.

 From March 1981, until April 1982, Mrs. Epps received continuous phone service. However, the record indicates that her long distance bill exceeded her toll credit limit almost every month and that at least three denial of service notices were sent to her. Nevertheless, Mrs. Epps consistently paid her bill in full and her phone remained in service.

 The critical period in this case began in April 1982. Mrs. Epps received a letter from South Central Bell dated April 6, 1982, which informed her that a deposit of $515.00 was due by April 13, 1982, in order to continue the phone services to her residence. The letter was sent by the defendant Marchetti, the service representative for the account. Marchetti testified that the deposit was required due to Epps' extremely high bills in the ...


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