CHICAGO (CN) – A man convicted of trying to murder his ex-wife by locking her in a snow-filled trash bin cannot use bankruptcy to avoid paying her $3.7 million in damages, the 7th Circuit ruled.
In 2004, David Larson beat his ex-wife, Teri Jedusa-Nicolai, with a baseball bat and transported her to an unheated Illinois storage locker, where he locked her in a snow-filled garbage can. The incident, which made national news, caused a miscarriage and severe frostbite necessitating the amputation of all of Jedusa-Nicolai’s toes.
Larson was convicted of attempted murder and received a life sentence. A Wisconsin court subsequently awarded Jedusa-Nicolai $3.4 million in damages, plus $300,000 to her new husband and children for loss of consortium.
Still in prison, Larson filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy to discharge the judgment debts.
A bankruptcy judge denied Larson’s request, finding the debts nondischargable because they were “for willful and malicious injury of another entity.” U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller affirmed the ruling.
Larson had claimed that the statute preventing discharge did not technically cover his ex’s specific injuries because he did not intend for her to sustain them.
But the arguments failed to sway the federal appeals court.
“The Wisconsin court did not decide that [Larson] intended to inflict the specific injuries, such as the loss of his ex-wife’s toes, that resulted from his attack on her,” Judge Richard Posner summarized for the three-judge panel. “But obviously he intended to injure her – he was convicted of attempted murder, after all – and the destruction of her toes and the miscarriage were foreseeable consequences of the intentional torts that gave rise to the debt he seeks to discharge.”
The court also rejected Larson’s arguments against the $1.5 million punitive damages component of his debt and $300,000 award to his ex-wife’s family. These awards cannot be discharged because they were “derivative from the injury that the debtor committed intentionally,” Posner wrote.
Known for his witty opinions and extensive legal scholarship, Posner quickly disposed of Larson’s claims and continued the opinion with a survey of the different definitions of “willful and malicious” used across sister circuit courts.
After citing decisions from the 2nd, 5th, 6th, 8th and 11th circuits, Posner ultimately concluded that the slight differences were of little consequence.
“Whatever the semantic confusion, we imagine that all courts would agree that a willful and malicious injury, precluding discharge in bankruptcy of the debt created by the injury, is one that the injurer inflicted knowing he had no legal justification and either desiring to inflict the injury or knowing it was highly likely to result from his act,” the eight-page decision states
After all, “the principal purpose of the Bankruptcy Code is to grant a fresh start to the honest but unfortunate debtor,” Posner wrote, quoting the Supreme Court’s decision in Marrama v. Citizens Bank of Massachusetts.
“An honest but unfortunate debtor Larsen is not,” Posner concluded.
Larsen was recently denied joint custody and visitation rights over his children, and the court also refused to reduce his child-support obligations.