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Lawsuit Against Heiress's Butler Dismissed : Ruling: Justice says former employees of Doris Duke had not shown sufficient 'emotional harm' to collect damages from Bernard Lafferty.

May 09, 1995|JOHN J. GOLDMAN and PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — A New York State Supreme Court justice has dismissed a $30-million breach of contract suit filed by the three former employees of tobacco heiress Doris Duke whose accusations have helped fuel investigations into Duke's death and management of her $1.2-billion estate.

In ruling against the claims of Duke's personal chef, housekeeper and handyman--who worked at the heiress's home near Beverly Hills--Justice Beatrice Shainswit said they are not entitled to damages despite their allegations that Bernard Lafferty, the heiress's former butler, forced them to perform "an incessant, exhausting and demeaning variety of personal services outside the scope of their normal duties running the gamut from shopping forays to psychiatric baby-sitting."

Although a lawyer for the employees pledged Monday to refile the suit based on new evidence, the judge said the three had not demonstrated sufficient "emotional harm" to collect damages from the estate's lawyers or Lafferty, who is slated to control the billion-dollar charitable foundation created under Duke's will.

Attorneys for the Duke estate and Lafferty on Monday applauded Shainswit's ruling, and at the same time filed documents in another New York court--including affidavits by actress Elizabeth Taylor and 30 of Duke's friends, business associates and physicians--to show that the heiress was competent when she named Lafferty and the U.S. Trust Co. of New York the executors of her will.

Taylor's affidavit was part of a mass of documents filed in Manhattan Surrogate's Court attacking a report by a court-appointed investigator, who sharply questioned the circumstances of Duke's death and Lafferty's ability to serve as co-executor of the estate.

The actress spoke of her 40-year friendship with Duke, and said they spoke by phone a month before the heiress died in 1993--when Duke said she wanted to make a $1-million donation to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

"Although she sounded weak, she was quite coherent and in charge of her thought processes," Taylor said. ". . . During this conversation, I found Ms. Duke to be entirely lucid and in command of her faculties. Her voice was clear although she was weak and experiencing medical problems."

After receiving the donation on Oct. 5, 1993, Taylor said, she sent Duke flowers and they spoke on the phone again.

"Her recollection of events of the past were accurate, although she continued to sound weak," the actress said.

In another affidavit, Eleanor Lawson, a longtime friend and dance teacher, said she visited Duke regularly up until her death on Oct. 28, 1993. "I felt that until about three weeks before her death, Doris was as alert mentally as I am today," Lawson said.

Lawyers for the Duke estate also sought to rebut allegations that overdoses of morphine hastened Duke's 1993 death--and that Lafferty may be unfit to administer her Gilded Age fortune.

Particularly, they attacked the testimony of Tammy Payette, one of Duke's nurses, calling "fantastic" her allegations that Duke "did not die of natural causes" and stressing that Payette was recently arrested on grand larceny charges brought by another of her home-care patients.

"This response demonstrates that not only are most of the facts in the report disputed, more important, they are plainly wrong," the estate's lawyers said in their formal answer to Richard H. Kuh, a former Manhattan district attorney who was appointed by Surrogate Court Judge Eve Preminger on Jan. 20 to examine circumstances of Duke's death.

The lawyers described the relationship of the heiress to her butler as "like that of a mother and son."

To back up the contention that Lafferty and the bank should administer Duke's enormous estate, the lawyers--in hundreds of pages of briefs and affidavits--argued:

* That Lafferty's personal spending has not affected either his performance as a preliminary co-executor or the estate's assets. "That Mr. Lafferty purchased a watch at Cartier, a suit at Armani or a box of popcorn at Woolworth is irrelevant," attorneys said. The butler has been criticized for running up tens of thousands of dollars of credit card charges in the months before Duke died.

* That Lafferty has pledged not to borrow any more funds from U.S. Trust Co. and that the $825,000 the bank loaned to him was proper and was "not imprudent" from a business standpoint because he will inherit $500,000 a year plus receive a $5-million executor's commission under Duke's will.

* That Lafferty's medical problems, including past "troubles with alcohol" do not hamper his abilities to discharge his responsibilities as an executor because U.S. Trust handles the estate's "complex financial matters" and criticism of the butler's capabilities are "unwarranted and irrelevant."

In one affidavit, Faye Wright, Duke's longtime yoga instructor, said she was at the heiress's bedside the night before she died.

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