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Neigel v. Seaboard Finance Co.

Decided: July 14, 1961.

ELEANOR J. NEIGEL, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
SEABOARD FINANCE COMPANY, A DELAWARE CORPORATION, AND HENRY J. SCHARFF, DEFENDANTS-CROSS-APPELLANTS



Goldmann, Foley and Lewis. The opinion of the court was delivered by Lewis, J.A.D.

Lewis

[68 NJSuper Page 545] This case emanates from a finance company transaction. An alleged defamatory letter was the basis of a libel action for compensatory and punitive damages, which resulted in a verdict in favor of plaintiff for compensatory damages of $500. The proffered defenses were

truth and qualified privilege. A motion for new trial as to damages only was denied. The matter is now before us on cross-appeals.

Plaintiff, Eleanor J. Neigel, was employed as a work order specialist at the McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. On September 3, 1957 she and her husband, Charles A. Neigel, borrowed the sum of $304 from the defendant, Seaboard Finance Company, a Delaware Corporation, authorized to do business in the State of New Jersey, under an agreement to repay the loan in 24 monthly installments of $17 each. This was not the first transaction between the parties. As late as December 17, 1958 the Neigels were advised that they were preferred customers and eligible to receive additional loans. Plaintiff and her husband are now divorced; judgment nisi was entered February 8, 1960 and final judgment was obtained May 9, 1960.

The wife had separated from her husband in August of 1958 and obtained an agreement from him for the support of their children. The month following their separation (September 1958), plaintiff advised the finance company that she would assume the responsibility for the loan payments. Her conversation was with Henry J. Scharff, the collection manager, a defendant in these proceedings. The regular monthly payments were continued by plaintiff up to and including the month of December 1958. During the latter part of January 1959, plaintiff again called Mr. Scharff and explained to him that her husband had stopped making support payments for their children and, until something could be worked out, she would be late with her payments. Scharff, in his reply, indicated that he was not interested in her problems, he "just wanted his money."

Plaintiff's testimony on cross-examination is significant:

"Q. What I am getting at, you told us one of the reasons you discontinued making payments to Seaboard was because your husband discontinued making payments to you.

A. I told Mr. Scharff in one of our phone calls if I could pay any way myself, I would, but I couldn't without the support money."

During the month of February 1959, the defendant Scharff telephoned to the plaintiff at her place of employment "between four and six" times, the calls becoming increasingly unpleasant. Plaintiff had specifically requested that he not call her at work "because there were people there and I didn't want everybody to know my business." She inquired as to why he did not contact her husband and she gave Mr. Scharff his telephone number. She further testified that Scharff advised her that "he was going to call my job, that I knew what that meant, the consequences."

On March 4, 1959 the defendant, Henry J. Scharff, sent the following letter to plaintiff's employer:

"Seaboard Finance Company

402 Trenton Trust Bldg.

Lic. No. 398

Trenton, N.J.

March 4, 1959

Director of Personnel (Civilian)

McGuire Air Force Base

Trenton, New Jersey

Dear Sir:

We are writing to advise you regarding a situation that exists between your employee Mrs. Eleanor Neigel, and her husband Charles and this corporation.

On September 3, 1957, we made a loan to Mr. & Mrs. Neigel in the amount of $304.00 to be repaid in twenty-four installments of $17.00 each month. We are sorry to report that this contract has not been kept.

At the present time Mr. & Mrs. Neigel are having family trouble and it is their belief that since such is the case, they have the right to withhold payments while they continue their family feud.

We are not trying to use you as a collection agency but neither do we intend to stand idly by and allow these people to use your office as a weapon against us.

It is our request that you be kind enough to speak with Mrs. Neigel and inform them of the serious consequences that may arise if they continue to neglect this just debt.

Thank you for your ...


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