A Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge tossed out the claim of a woman who argued that a copper heiress had deeded the woman an iconic oceanfront estate in a chance encounter decades ago.
According to a court ruling issued Tuesday, Judge Thomas Anderle tossed out the claims of Lori Ann Sellers, who said Huguette Clark had deeded her oceanfront property, known as "Bellosguardo," located at 1407 E. Cabrillo Blvd. in Santa Barbara, by allegedly writing "Cabrillo Mansion yours!" on a torn page from a book and giving it to Sellers in the mid-1980s.
Clark, who died in 2011 in a hospital in New York, was the daughter of copper tycoon and Idaho Sen. William Clark.
She was 104 when she died, and a legal battle ensued over two wills she had left that had been signed six years apart.
Nineteen relatives challenged the will in court and won more than $34 million in legal fees last year, and as part of the settlement, Bellosguardo and all of its furnishings were left to the Bellosguardo Foundation, a private nonprofit foundation established for the purpose of fostering and promoting the arts.
Journalist Bill Dedman and co-author Paul Clark Newell Jr. documented the estate and the life of Clark in a 2013 book titled Empty Mansions: the Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.
The ruling said that Sellers, who was representing herself without an attorney, had met Clark in 1985 during a chance encounter in Santa Barbara, when Clark allegedly deeded her oceanfront estate to Sellers.
Sellers claimed Clark tore a page from a book she was holding and, using a pencil belonging to Sellers' son, wrote on the paper the words “Cabrillo Mansion yours!” and signed her name.
"Plaintiff claims that the three-word inscription means that Ms. Clark intended to convey Bellosguardo to her and that she is the rightful owner of the property," Anderle's ruling states.
Clark allegedly signed the paper after talking with Sellers and one of Clark's friends for about an hour, "during which time Ms. Clark told plaintiff that they had much in common and that plaintiff reminded her of her own mother who had passed away in 1963."
Clark allegedly took a strong liking to Sellers and her 10-month-old son, Matthew, and invited them to come live with her in New York, the ruling states.
When Sellers declined, Clark told the plaintiff that she still wanted to take care of her and her son and wrote the note, leaving the mansion to Sellers, the ruling states.
The defendants in the case are Clark's estate and administrator Thomas LeViness as well as attorney Farrell Fritz, who argued that time had run out on the claim.
The judge agreed with their claim that the statute of limitations in the case had run out — four years from the signing of the document — which would have expired in 1989, "nearly 25 years before she filed her complaint."
Anderle said Sellers had attached the torn piece of paper as evidence to her complaint.
"While [Sellers] asserts that she was only '22 years old ... and naive' when she encountered Ms. Clark, this does not excuse her delay in filing suit," he wrote.
Since she waited 30 years to file her complaint, the judge wrote, "the lack of diligence in pursing the action has resulted in actual prejudice to defendants as Ms. Clark is now deceased and can no longer explain the alleged encounter with plaintiff in 1985."
The judge agreed with the defendants' argument that the note didn't meet the legal requirements for a transfer of property deed, which would need to state the parties involved, their agreement and the terms.
"The writing in this case does not come close to meeting these requirements," he said. "The handwritten note contains no street address or other description by which the property can be identified other than 'Cabrillo Mansion,' and the phrase 'Cabrillo Mansion yours!' is ambiguous and hardly suggests that Ms. Clark was intending to give, transfer or otherwise convey real property worth millions of dollars to plaintiff."