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November 12 2005 - $3 MILLION BAD-FAITH VERDICT;

JURY: AUTO INSURER 'WILLFUL, WANTON' IN REFUSING CLAIM

11/12/2005

A Boulder, Colorado jury has awarded a former University of Colorado math professor nearly $3 million in what is believed to be the state’s largest bad-faith verdict against an auto insurer over lost wages.

Dominic Peressini, 39, had asked for 85 percent of his actual lost wages, or $125,000, during a year-long sabbatical following a 2003 automobile accident that left him with a brain injury and mangled arm.

The six-member jury, after a four-day trial, found Peressini’s insurer, American Family Mutual Insurance Co., liable for breach of contract and awarded $1.1 million in punitive damages and $1.1 million for pain and suffering, in addition to lost wages.  The jury found that American Family’s refusal to pay Peressini’s claim was “willful and wanton”, which triples the lost wages award to $375,000.

American Family must also pay the plaintiff's attorney fees and 18 percent annual interest on the three-year-old wage award.

Madison, Wis.-based American Family, the country's 10th- largest car insurance provider, maintained Peressini's claim had not been formally denied but that the case was still under investigation.

Underwriting issues became a major focus of the plaintiff's case.

A former American Family nurse case manager in Denver portrayed the insurer as a callous claims adjuster, with the Colorado office under intense pressure to reduce personal injury protection payouts.

Jurors were told about a senior case manager who kept on her desk a battery-operated "if pigs could fly" toy, used as an office joke each time a rejected claim brought the staff closer to its cost-cutting goal.

Introduced was a 2003 Colorado business plan that called for reducing claims payouts by 28 percent to match the lower claims-loss ratios of American Family's competitors.

Peressini said he recently retired from his tenured professorship at Colorado and is still struggling with memory and cognitive problems from the 2003 accident. He has relocated to Spokane, Wash., where he has family and volunteers as a math tutor for high school athletes.

"Never in my life would I expect a verdict to come out like this - over a million dollars," he said. "I'm a pretty simple person. All I wanted is what I needed."
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