THE CASE OF THE DISHONORED CHECK
Zuzzane, as an individual, had an option to purchase a valuable piece of land for $500,000, provided she exercised the option by a certain date by mailing a deposit check for $50,000. This land was appraised at $600,000 and she intended to build housing for her family and her elderly mother on it. She drew a check for $50,000 on her personal checking account she had at First American Bank and mailed it to the landowner. Zuzzane had this checking account for 10 years. At the time she drew the check, she verified electronically that she had $60,000 in this personal account. However,s he owed the bank $30,000 for a collateralized loan that was 60 days overdue. That loan was taken out by her Limited Liability Company and secured with collateral from it. That loan had been taken out two years ago. The bank refused to honor the $50,000 check and spent $750.00 handling the resulting paperwork. As a result of the dishonorment, Zuzzane’s option became void, and the landowner sold the land to someone else for $550,000, resulting in a severe loss to Zuzzane. She sued the bank for damages.
At trial, Zuzzane’s attorneys proved the value of the land, her losses, and the fact that she had always paid the bank on time, except for the most recent payment that was overdue. The bank’s attorneys proved that Zuzzane was over sixty days late on her last LLC loan payment and that it was their practice not to notify customers that there might be insufficient funds in their accounts to cover all checks written, as doing so would place an undue burden on the banking system.
The Arguments at Trial
Zuzzane’s attorneys argued that a bank has no right to dishonor a check except for the normal reasons permitted by law, such as a suspected forgery, an improper endorsement, and so forth. They further argued that the bank, based on its relationship with Zuzzane, should have contacted her before dishonoring the check so that she could have taken other action to prevent her loss of the land and that she did not have an automatic deduction from her personal account for the business loan. The bank’s attorneys argued that Zuzzane’s being overdue on her last loan payment indicated she was in financial trouble, that they had a right to seize her account to cover the overdue payment, and that instead they simply refused to honor checks on her account until the overdue loan was paid. They further argued that based on banking industry customs, it is the responsibility of the customer and not the bank to make sure there are sufficient funds to cover checks written. They were losing money each day that the loan was unpaid.
Questions to Discuss
- Whom do you think the jury will favor, Zuzzane or the bank? Why?
- If you feel Zuzzane should win, what will her damages be? If you feel the bank should win, what will their damages be?
- Under what circumstances, if any, should a bank be able to offset a loan to a customer against any bank account on which the customer’s name appears?