Posted By Simpson Law Group LLP Trial Attorneys Posted in:News
While the jury deliberated this week inside the court- house in El Cajon. plaintiff Darla Johnson laid down on a bench. her head on a pillow and went to sleep.
Johnson, 49, who suffers from chronic fatigue. lupus, fibromyalgia and an immune system disorder, spent much of the six-week trial with her head down on the table between her attorneys. Sometimes she rested on the floor, overcome by pain and exhaustion.
The Chula Vista woman was in court because her insurance company didn’t believe she was sick. But a jury did.
Darla Johnson napped last week as a jury considered what punitive damages an insurance company should pay for denying her disability payments. She suffers from chronic fatigue and other conditions. Nancee E. Lewis / Union-Tribune On Thursday, the jury ordered Prudential Insurance Co. to pay $14 million in punitive damages on top of $1.5 million it awarded Johnson last week in compensatory damages to cover benefits the company had refused to pay.
“I feel vindicated, like a huge weight has been lifted.” said Johnson, earlier this week. “I know there’s a long road ahead still.”
Prudential spokesman Bob DeFillippo said the company would ask Superior Court Judge Eddie Sturgeon to set aside the verdict. and if the judge doesn’t. it plans to appeal.
We think the verdict against Prudential is wrong,” DeFillippo said. ‘”We believe that the award of punitive damages was excessive and exceeds the amount allowable under the law.”
Johnson’s lawyer, Sean Simpson. disagreed. saying the award did not exceed the legal limit.
Hanis Steinberg, a San Diego trial attorney who specializes in insurance law, said the nearly $15 million awarded
Johnson “is on the high end’: of what juries have historically awarded in such cases involving individual plaintiffs. Typically, punitive damage awards range from $1 million to $7 million, Steinberg said.
After hearing the jury’s verdict, Johnson said she hoped Prudential has learned a lesson. “I want them to stop this,” she said. ‘They’re just bullies.” Simpson said he hoped the verdict would lead Prudential and other insurance companies to reconsider the way the evaluate disability claims.
Steinberg, however, doubted the verdict would change company practices.
“A lot of these folks who are handling these claims view it· as a game,” Steinberg said. He. said companies sometimes feel it is cheaper to deny valid claims than pay them, thinking that most people won’t fight back.
Johnson was the project manager · in the construction department at the University of California San Francisco, when she was diagnosed with lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and antiphospholipid antibody syndrome, a disorder of the immune system.
She would come home from work to her husband and 4- year-old daughter and drop from exhaustion. “I was always in pajamas and I was always in the chair. That’s what my daughter remembers from our time in San Francis- co,” she said.
In 1995, Johnson left her job and went on disability.
For five years, Prudential paid Johnson $3,130 per month, half her previous income. Johnson’s family moved to San Bernardino County in 2000, where they bought a house. Prudential assured the lender of her future disability income.
Six months later, her benefits were terminated. The doctor Prudential had sent her to for an independent medical exam had filed a report saying Johnson wasn’t disabled.
“He performed a perfunctory exam, he filed a perfunctory report,” said Charles Moore, one of Johnson’s lawyers. “He was paid ·to find she wasn’t disabled.”
Johnson filed two appeals with the insurance company, then turned to the courts, suing in August 2003.
The case went to trial in January of this year, and Johnson’s lawyers argued that Prudential had targeted her because of her chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia syndromes have no definitive cause. When the company realized it would be paying disability benefits until Johnson was 65, it terminated the benefits, Johnson’s attorneys argued.
Prudential’s lawyers, Robert Young and Stan Calvert, said that Johnson had not provided the insurance company with sufficient evidence of her disability.
An expert in insurance claims who testified for the defense said that in late 1999 or early 2000, Prudential began requiring more stringent objective evidence to support disability claims, such as X-rays and blood tests.
The $1.5 million Johnson was awarded in compensatory damages covers past and future benefits as well as general damages for the grief and inconvenience she suffered when Prudential refused to pay her claims. The company also must pay attorneys’ fees, which is likely to be more than $500,000.
Simpson said it could take three years for Johnson to receive any money.
Article By Elizabeth Fitzsimons and Ray Huard
Courtesy of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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