Good neighbour allowed to keep gift of £297,000

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The Independent Online

A neighbour who was given nearly £300,000 by a retired teacher she helped him with his shopping won her battle in the High Court to keep the money after the man's family claimed she misappropriated it.

Susan Osborn wept as Mr Justice Mackay ruled that Dennis Pritler had not been pressured into giving her £297,000, two-thirds of his total wealth.

Mr Pritler spent most of his adult life teaching in Africa and Asia, never married and lived humbly with his cat surrounded by books in a run-down house in Loughton, Essex. Mrs Osborn kept the sum secret from Mr Pritler's family in the immediate aftermath of his death from pneumonia in November 1999 at the age of 74.

The court heard that in spring 1998, Mrs Osborn spotted a frail and distressed Mr Pritler struggling to do his shopping.

"Like a good neighbour, she took him under her wing, helped him to her home and the relationship expanded from that day," the judge said.

Over time Mrs Osborn, 53, became increasingly fond of Mr Pritler and regarded herself as being like his daughter.

After a spell in hospital, Mr Pritler raised the question of giving her a gift, but the matter was dropped when she did not respond to the offer. She first discovered a six-figure sum was involved when his health further failed just before he died.

The case hinged on the drawing of four cheques in the month before he died which amounted to £297,000. Despite organising the funeral, Mrs Osborn failed to tell the family or the solicitors for the estate about the gifts.

However, giving his ruling yesterday, the judge said that when Mrs Osborn gave evidence about her neighbour, a smile came to her face when she had previously been drawn and unhappy.

"She called him a gentleman. She thought very much of him as a father figure," he said.

The gift only came to light when Mrs Osborn's husband, whom she had just left and moved to a new home, found papers relating to the cheques.

The police were called in, a criminal case was launched but no charges had been brought.

Ruling in her favour, the judge said he believed that Mr Pritler intended to give the money to Mrs Osborn, who did nothing to lead him on. "I believe he had sufficient ability to comprehend fully what he was doing," he said.

"I find it impossible to believe that she could, given her genuine affection and respect for Mr Pritler, have betrayed his trust in the way the claimant says," he said.

The judge added: "The stakes were high. The sums were large. People do get corrupted by large sums of money. But, my judgment is that it did not happen in her case."

The judge accepted the explanation Mrs Osborn gave for her lack of candour after Mr Pritler's death, which was that her husband had told her to keep her mouth shut and she was too terrified to defy him.