A federal magistrate judge in San Francisco has upheld a $7.7 million jury verdict against an insurance company that unfairly cut off disability benefits to a former Berkeley chiropractor.
The company is UnumProvident, the nation’s largest disability insurance provider, which came under fire last month from a national television news program for its benefit termination practices. “The company strongly disagrees with the court’s finding and will be filing a notice of appeal,” UnumProvident said in a release issued Thursday.
Joan Hangarter, 53, of Novato used to have a chiropractic office on Solano Avenue; she bought an “own-occupation disability” policy from Paul Revere Life Insurance Co. in the 1980s for insurance should she be unable to continue working.
She was diagnosed in 1996 with cervical disc disease and tennis elbow, and she began collecting disability payments in 1997. But Revere stopped her $8,150 monthly payments in 1999, leaving the single mother of two, bankrupt and dependent on food stamps.
A seven-person federal jury returned a verdict in February including $5 million in punitive damages against the insurance company, which is now owned by Tennessee-based UnumProvident.
In a post-trial motions ruling issued this week, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Larson said the insurance company developed “a comprehensive system for targeting and terminating expensive claims like Plaintiff’s.”
The jury heard enough evidence to support punitive damages, Larson found “the use of a biased medical examiner, failing to advise plaintiff of benefits to which she was entitled, and then terminating her benefits when she remained totally disabled.”
Larson also upheld the jury’s award of future policy benefits.
“Why should Dr. Hangarter have to submit to future physical examinations to prove her continued disability when the jury has already found that the insurance company cannot be trusted to deal fairly with her?” he wrote.
Television newsmagazine “Dateline NBC” aired a segment last month examining UnumProvident’s halt of benefits payments to two other policyhol-ders; that story quoted many of the same documents and sources Hangarter’s attorneys used at trial.
In response, UnumProvident Chairman, President and CEO J. Harold Chandler acknowledged mistakes were made regarding the two policyholders featured in the news program. But those mistakes are “exceptions to a record which otherwise shows consistent care and concern for our customers,” he insisted, denying the company sets targets for closing valid claims.
In its release, UnumProvident insisted it doesn’t engage in the practices of which it was accused by the Hangarter. “UnumProvident and its subsidiary companies will abide by the law and the proud tradition of serving its policyholders as it has done for the past century and will continue to do for the next century.”