High court to decide fate of $30 million bequest

Doctor's will stipulated that money be used to house white patients

May 10, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Battling over a gift of nearly $30 million, lawyers for two Baltimore health care institutions argued yesterday over which takes precedence, Maryland's anti-segregation policies or rules governing bequests.

The attorneys, appearing before the state's highest court, are vying over a bequest from Dr. Jesse C. Coggins. In 1962, Coggins wrote a will leaving what was then a $2.3 million estate to the Keswick Home with the caveat that it use the money to house white patients and name the building for him.

If that was unacceptable, the money was to go to University of Maryland Medical System, with no race restrictions. Coggins, who practiced during racially segregated times, died at age 88 in 1963, a month after writing a will that included the restriction.

"If they rule in Keswick's favor, it would be the first time that any court invalidated a bequest in the case" in which a second charity was named, said the university's attorney, Shale D. Stiller. Keswick's lawyers disputed that.

"If a charity can't comply, then it goes to No. 2 or No. 3. It doesn't matter why they can't comply," Stiller said.

Lawyer John F. Morkan III said Keswick should not be punished for not meeting conditions that were common 30 years ago but are illegal today. "If the provision in a will is against public policy, then it is void," he said.

Two of the seven Court of Appeals judges appeared sympathetic to Keswick's argument that the terms of the gift place the institution in an untenable situation. Even if it wanted to accede to the terms of Coggins' bequest, it couldn't. Many health care facilities were segregated in 1962, and the practice was outlawed in 1964. But Morkan said some of the applicable civil rights laws are much older, passed shortly after the Civil War.

"You had all kinds of civil rights bills pending in 1963," said Judge John C. Eldridge. "Anybody who thought that even in '63 that this was on solid public policy grounds would be pretty stupid."

University lawyers did not dispute the illegality of the restriction but said that because Coggins had a backup plan for his bequest if Keswick could not meet his terms, no court can erase the racial condition and award the money to Keswick.

Coggins worked at segregated Spring Grove State Hospital for nine years. He lived in Prince George's County and in 1905 opened a hospital, Laurel Sanitarium, which probably was segregated. It was sold and razed after his death.

During the last months of Coggins' life, the civil rights movement had succeeded in eroding racially discriminatory practices. The state had announced that it planned to end racial segregation at four state hospitals, civil rights protests were being held in the region, and the federal government was moving toward ending racial segregation in federally funded housing.

Coggins' ties to Keswick have been hazy, though it is believed that he might have sent patients there. Between 1944 and 1962, he included Keswick in nearly a dozen wills.

The dispute over Coggins' bequest began in 1998, when Helen Alexander Coggins, his widow and the last person receiving monthly income from a trust, died at Keswick. She served on its board after it was integrated in 1967 and lived there for two decades.

Last fall, a Baltimore judge ruled that by law, the money must go to the university medical system. Negotiations between the two health care facilities failed. Keswick appealed.

Keswick Multi-Care Center, a one-time nursing home that offers adult day care and assisted living, knowing of the bequest, completed a Coggins building in 1974. If Keswick gets the money, it will build another Coggins building, Morkan said.

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