Judge Finds That Bank of America and West Asset Management Harassed Florida Woman

This means she can go for punitive damages.

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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, Fla., found that collection attempts by West Asset Management, an Omaha, Neb., firm working on behalf of Bank of America, amounted to harassment.

The ruling clears the way for the plaintiff to get punitive damages from the collector, a unit of West Corp., and Bank of America, which is the second largest U.S. bank by deposits. A civil jury will determine the size of the award next year.

The companies declined to comment on the latest ruling. Judge Kyle didn’t return calls for comment.

The case could set a precedent across the U.S. and discourage lenders from using collectors to get money from surviving relatives on debts left behind by the deceased, according to other state-court judges.

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 zero in on family members who they think might agree to pay some of what the dead person owed 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. Surviving family members typically have no legal obligation to pay unless they co-signed a loan.

Form the Wall Street Journal: Judge Says Widow Harassed