Doritos-in-law: widow’s foiled attempt to make a packet with forged will

Posted on 15th May 2017 in Case Comment

It’s not often that Doritos, a corn-based tortilla-chip snack food, make it into the legal news, but they did so recently with quite a zing. Paul Magrath investigates.

Doritos: may contain testamentary dispositions

The excitable Daily Mail headline read almost like a headnote:

‘Gold digger’ in her twenties who married a school lollipop man, 76, forged his will and claimed she’d found it in an empty Doritos packet to get her hands on his £600,000 fortune’

Just add the words “refused probate” or, if you prefer, “tortilla lesson she won’t forget” at the end.

The story was a good one but more to the point the reporter reproduced a good deal of the content of the judgment of HHJ Nigel Gerald, which does not appear to have been officially published anywhere yet — perhaps because it was given in the Mayor’s and City of London Court, which is a county court, rather than the High Court. (Although BAILII publishes judgments of the Patents County Court and what used to be called the County Court (Family), now recast as the Family Court (other judges), it does not currently publish will and inheritance cases heard in, or transferred from the Chancery Division to, the county court.)

The Mail report was flagged up on Twitter by wills and trusts solicitor Alan Draper and soon gathered a comment thread started by barrister Barbara Rich, picking up on a choice quotation from the judge:

 

(The collection of judicial quotations referred to was an earlier legal Twitter thread written up here as Battle of the BAILII.)

Where there’s a Will…

… all well and good. But if not (or if not enough) it is often tempting to remedy the situation post mortem. This appears to be what happened here, as that headline suggests. As Barbara Rich noted in another tweet:

‘You have to admire the conjunction of amateur forgery, fortune-hunting & instant gratification fast food in this headline’

In this case the lolly-pop man (a lovely play on the idea of a putative sugar-daddy) was Newton Davies, “retired London bus conductor turned school patrolman”, who died aged 85 possessed of a £600,000 fortune, of which he left his widow, Marsha Henderson, whom he had married when he was 76 and she was still in her twenties, just £25,000. He left another £140,000 to an old friend, and the residue of around £430,000 to his daughter by an earlier marriage, Paulette.

But that will, dated July 2011, was disputed by Ms Henderson, who claimed to have found a later will, dated November 2011, lodged inside an empty Doritos bag left on the floor in the loft of Mr Davies’ home in Harrow Road, Wembley, where she was still living. The later will left just £20,000 to Paulette, £25,000 to friends and £550,000 to Ms Henderson.

Judge Gerald dismissed the new will as a crude forgery, riddled with errors, including confusing the testator’s gender in the attestation clause which declared it to be “her last will”. Moreover the strange story of its late discovery was simply too fantastical to be believed.

‘No explanation has ever been given as to how Mr Davies was able to gain access to the loft space to secrete the will in a packet of Doritos — or why he should have wished to do so.’

‘It will obviously strike anybody as being somewhat eccentric to put an important document such as a will into a Doritos bag, but there are eccentric people in this world. So that, of itself, does not cause me to be disbelieving, although it does cause me to consider how a man in his early eighties, who according to (a friend of his who gave evidence) does not eat Doritos, would put this document into an empty Doritos bag and then put it in the loft.

‘It is inherently unlikely that the deceased would go into the loft in November 2011, find an empty Doritos bag and put his will in it. There is eccentric and there is ridiculous — and this is ridiculous…

Commenting on the fact that the new will had been written on an A4-sized sheet of paper, the judge observed:

‘I cannot take judicial notice of the size of a Doritos bag, but as far as I am aware it is smaller than an A4 piece of paper.

Presumably, though, the will might have been folded? Or the bag might have been a ‘party size’ one. Be that as it may, it only added to the inherent unlikelihood of the Doritos bag being used as a document folder or envelope, for the safe keeping of an important legal document, left on the floor of the attic of an elderly gentleman. At any rate, the judge was having none of it. Having also considered handwriting expert evidence pointing to the likelihood of forgery, he concluded:

‘There is no doubt, upon the evidence which I have heard, that Ms Henderson …came to court to lie … There is no doubt of any nature whatsoever that the November 2011 will is a simple, but rather poor quality, forgery. […] I refuse to admit the November 2011 will into probate.’

When the (tortilla) chips are down…

Returning to the main theme, while the Davies’s Will case (presumably titled In re Newton Davies, decd) is not on BAILII, Doritos have featured in other published judgments that are on the database, such as Hazlewood Grocery Ltd v Lion Foods Ltd [2007] EWHC B5 (QB) . This concerned a sale of goods dispute arising out of the supply of 1000 kg of chilli powder by the defendant (Lion) to the claimant (Hazlewood) manufacturers of, inter alia, Doritos. The chilli powder was contaminated with minute quantities of an industrial dye known as Para Red, which is not a permitted additive in food stuffs. However, it was common ground that the very low levels of Para Red did not create any risk to the health of the members of the public purchasing the foods into which it passed. Nevertheless, there was a product recall and Hazlewood sued for damages for breach of contract, which Lion denied on the ground, inter alia, that any financial loss flowed from the over-cautious reaction of the Food Standards Agency at whose behest the products had been recalled. Having tried the case, Judge Behrens QC found the claim on liability made out. (Damages had already been agreed, subject to liability, in the sum of £562,500 plus interest.)

None of this would have been exciting enough for the Daily Mail, one suspects, though headlines such as “Taint me: chilli-flavoured chip-maker wins over half a million in compensation after ‘seeing red’ in food dye contamination claim” might have livened up coverage of the Queen’s Bench Division at the time.

Another case that mentions Doritos — but in the context of products such as Pringles and whether they should be zero-rated for VAT purposes as “Food of a kind used for human consumption” or standard rated as being products made from potato or cereals and “packaged for human consumption without further preparation” — was Procter & Gamble UK v Revenue & Customs Comrs [2008] EWHC 1558 (Ch); also reported [2008] STC 2650. No doubt these cases are worth pursuing, from the parties’ point of view, but they don’t make for very exciting reading.

Fun facts

Instead, here are some fun facts to “dip” into.

  • Tortilla chips were originally developed at a diner in Disneyland in Annaheim, California in the early 1960s, as a way of using up surplus tortilla wraps by cutting them up and frying them, with added seasoning. But soon big business, in the form of the Frito-Lay company, moved in and bought up the idea, marketing them nationwide from 1966.
  • The name Dorito, which they applied to them, derives from the Mexican Spanish doradito, meaning “golden brown”. (Don’t tell the Stranglers.)
  • Doritos (like Pringles) contain MSG (monosodium glutamate) which is BAD. The Waitrose generic version is therefore a better option for your Happy Hour snack dish.
  • The recent hit film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 was promoted with a special edition Doritos pack that you can plug your headphone jack into and listen to the film’s soundtrack: “impressive, but also kind of weird and unnecessary,” said the Independent.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Independent.

Sauces: hummus is recommended, or guacamole. (Steer clear of that red food dyed salsa stuff, it’s probably lethal.)

This post was written by Paul Magrath, who tweets as @Maggotlaw. No one else is to blame.