The Portland Museum of Art won a $4.6 million court award Monday after a jury determined that a caretaker coerced the wealthy woman she looked after into changing her will, giving the caretaker the woman’s entire estate.

The museum said an earlier version of the woman’s estate plan called for it to receive an art collection and major cash gift after the woman died.

The museum’s lawyer, Thimi Mina, said Eleanor Potter signed an estate plan in early 2014 in which she intended to give much of her estate to the museum. But, Mina said, Potter signed a new will about six months later naming her caretaker as the sole beneficiary.

Potter died in early 2015. She was 89.

Mina said that Potter was coerced into making the change by caretaker Annemarie Germain, depriving the museum of a gift of art and cash from Potter valued at nearly $3.3 million. The jury in Cumberland County Superior Court agreed and granted Mina’s request for punitive damages to put the total award from Germain at $4.6 million.

The trial over Potter’s multimillion-dollar estate began last week and closing statements were delivered Monday afternoon. It took the jury barely an hour to reach its conclusion.

The nine-member jury was unanimous in its finding. In state civil cases, six of the nine jurors have to agree on a verdict based on the “preponderance of evidence,” unlike a criminal trial, which requires a unanimous verdict beyond a reasonable doubt for conviction.

In March 2014, Potter signed an estate plan that made the museum a “remainder” benefactor of her estate, meaning it would get her art collection and money left over after bequests to others, with an estimated total value to the museum of $3,259,000, Mina said.

But Potter soon fired the lawyers who drew up that plan, and in October 2014 she signed a new will, naming Germain as her sole beneficiary. Germain had cared for Potter for years and moved into the woman’s home on Parsons Road, near Portland’s Back Cove, after Potter broke a hip in 2012.

The museum alleged that Germain established control over Potter and convinced her to change her will.

Mina called Germain’s domination of Potter a “long, systematic and relentless” exercise of control over a woman in her late 80s. Germain threatened Potter that she would be put in a nursing home, and she could be heard “coaching” Potter in the background on calls with lawyers, Mina said.

But Germain’s lawyer, Gene Libby, said Potter simply wanted to reward a woman who had cared for her.

Libby also told the jury that Potter never alleged to anyone that Germain was controlling her and had persuaded her to change the will. Potter had ample opportunity to do so, Libby said, in meetings with lawyers and regular doctor visits in the year before her death.

Potter was “very independent, intelligent and up to her very last day, made her own decisions,” said Libby, who also told jurors that the museum’s lawyers weren’t arguing that Potter was not of sound mind when she signed the estate plan and wills in 2014.

In fact, Potter saw her doctor the day after signing the new will in October 2014 and the medical notes mention that the doctor didn’t need to put any restrictions on her diet and activities and she was in excellent spirits.

Libby said that was evidence that the new will was welcome.

“What she had so long wanted had finally been accomplished,” he said. The museum, Libby said, acted as if it was “entitled to Eleanor’s estate.”

Mina said he asked for punitive damages on top of the museum’s estimate of what it might have gotten from Potter’s estate to deter others from trying the same thing.

“She got away with a lot of money here,” he said.

Libby did not respond to an email Monday night asking if Germain planned to appeal the jury’s verdict.

Mina said that Potter had been a longtime supporter of the museum and a member of its leadership committee.

“The PMA is grateful and appreciative of Mrs. Potter’s longtime support to the museum, which spanned decades, and is thankful that her intent to promote art and culture in Maine may now be recognized,” he said in a statement Monday night. “The Portland Museum of Art did not take the decision to file this lawsuit lightly but felt compelled to do so given the evidence of the serious nature of the conduct before it.”

 

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