Jury awards woman $42.8M in civil suit

By John W. Goodwin Jr.



A jury awarded a Boardman woman $42.8 million in total damages in a civil suit against her former employer, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. of Columbus.

Christine Lucarell sued the insurance giant in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, alleging Nationwide enrolled her in an agency executive program, then withheld financing from her agency and made her working conditions so intolerable she was forced to quit.

The case was heard before visiting Judge Thomas J. Pokorny.

Lucarell was in tears after hearing the jury’s damages awards.

The eight-member, all-male jury spent two weeks listening to evidence in the case before returning a finding in Lucarell’s favor Monday afternoon.

Lucarell had been seeking $5 million in compensatory damages and an undetermined amount in punitive damages.

Nationwide’s lawyer said the company will appeal the damages awards.

The breakdown for the compensatory damages was $5.7 million in lost profits, $1 million in emotional damages, and $100,000 for retaliation.

The award for punitive damages was $36 million.

After jurors announced the compensatory award, attorneys for both sides spoke to them about punitive damages. Judge Pokorny told jurors that any punitive finding would be to punish Nationwide and discourage similar activity in the future.

Caryn Groedel, representing Lucarell, restated a list of wrongs she says Nationwide did to her client meriting a stiff punitive finding.

“This type of fraud and manipulation entitles Christine to punitive damages and more than that to punish the defendants for what they did. ... This was not an accident,” she said.

Groedel asked jurors to award Lucarell one-twelfth of Nationwide’s $386 million annual net profits in punitive damages.

Quintin Lindsmith, representing Nationwide, said his client did nothing to the plaintiff that would warrant punitive damages.

“It’s one thing to say Nationwide screwed up ... but it’s another thing to say Nationwide did it with malice or ill will. That’s not the case,” he said.

Lucarell, who has worked in the insurance industry for 20 years, said she was one of about 400 Nationwide agents who participated in the company’s three-year agency executive program.

Nationwide told her she could earn more than $200,000 in annual commissions by participating in the program and that agents successfully completing the program could become independent insurance agents, Lucarell said in her civil lawsuit.

Even though her agency was profitable, Nationwide stopped financing Lucarell’s Boardman agency in April 2009 and forced her to resign in July of that year, Lucarell said.

Nationwide terminated about 90 percent of its agency executive agencies, including Lucarell’s, “using unsustainable monthly production quotas to withhold financing from the agencies and then terminating them once the agents had generated a profitable book of business,” the suit said.

Nationwide denied Lucarell’s allegations and said Lucarell was an independent contractor, not a company employee.

Nationwide acknowledged that Lucarell “needed to achieve certain production goals” to obtain loan disbursements from the company. However, the company’s lawyers said in a trial brief: “Plaintiff’s damages, if any, were not caused by Nationwide, but rather were self-inflicted and caused by her own business decisions.”

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