TAMPA, Fla. — A widow claims that debt collectors hounded her husband to death with as many as nine caustic calls per day, causing stress that contributed to his fatal heart attack. She's suing the Florida couple's mortgage company in a unique wrongful death case.
Dianne McLeod wants Green Tree Servicing to pay damages for what she said are illegal collection practices that led to her husband's heart failure on Dec. 4, 2005. Her 57-year-old husband, Stanley, was already in poor health from a heart attack years earlier that also had left him on disability.
An executive at Green Tree Servicing called the claim "outrageous and meritless."
Lawsuits against debt collectors alleging illegal practices are common. But McLeod's Tampa attorney, William Howard, believes it's the first time one has ever been sued for wrongful death. John Nemo, a spokesman for the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, said he's not aware of it happening before, either.
"I think people in the legal community are watching to see how it unfolds, because it's a pretty unique case," Nemo said.
Stanley McLeod had a heart attack while working at Sears in 1997, Howard said, and was never able to work full-time again. The family eventually fell behind on payments on their manufactured home in Keystone Heights near Gainesville.
Dianne McLeod said the collection calls from Green Tree Servicing, sometimes as many as nine per day, intensified in August 2005 and wore on her husband's health.
"His breathing got really labored, his face was red, he was sweating, you could tell he was getting ill" after the calls would come, she said in an interview.
Some of the calls were recorded on the family's answering machine, and Howard said he is eager to play them for a jury.
In one recorded message, an angry male caller says: "Stanley McLeod, you need to call Green Tree and get your act together and make a payment on your mortgage. Quit playing games." Then, presumably referring to the emergency aircraft that flew McLeod to the hospital after his heart attack, the caller said: "Why don't you have that helicopter pick you up and bring that payment to the office."
Other recorded calls gave him a deadline to pay a certain amount and threatened foreclosure. Some implored McLeod to call back so the company could try to work out payment arrangements with him.
Howard said the number and harassing tone of the calls broke Florida law. He said the company also illegally called a neighbor and McLeod's brother and grandson regarding the debt.
Howard sued Green Tree on the family's behalf in 2005, then added the wrongful death count in 2006 after Stanley McLeod died.
The case has been winding its way through courts since. Earlier this month, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Florida again ruled against Green Tree in the company's efforts to force the case into arbitration. Howard said he will ask a judge to set the case for trial soon. He hasn't decided yet how much he will seek.
"What happened to Stanley McLeod happened to a lot of people," said Howard, who has about 500 pending cases that claim undue harassment by debt collectors. "To be held hostage in your own home is a terrible thing. It's a helpless feeling."
Howard works for the law firm of Morgan & Morgan, which has offices around the state, heading a division that sues debt collectors for unfair collection practices.
Brian Corey, senior vice present and general counsel for Green Tree Servicing, said the company is preparing to take the case to trial.
"We deny that collection calls, whether the content, number or timing, led to Mr. McLeod's death, and we look forward to defending this matter in a court proceeding instead of in the media," Corey said.
Joe Little, professor emeritus at the University of Florida law school, said Howard will have to convince a jury that harassment by the mortgage company was egregious enough to warrant punishment, and that the stress of the calls hastened McLeod's death.
Howard isn't likely to have an easy time connecting those elements for jurors, Little said, especially if McLeod was already in poor health when the calls began.
Nemo said the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act generally outlines the do's and don'ts of how collectors can operate. Most states also have statutes that augment the federal law, he said.