Judge trims $10.3M off jury award in Nationwide case




It took three years for Christine Lucarell to win a jury award of $42.8 million against her former employer, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. It took a judge three months to reduce that amount by $10.3 million.

A Nationwide spokeswoman, meanwhile, says the company will ask the court to either reverse the decision in its favor, or grant the insurance giant a new trial.

In 2010, Lucarell, of Boardman, sued Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. of Columbus, claiming breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, invasion of privacy, retaliation and constructive discharge.

She said Nationwide used predatory tactics to lure her into working as an agent for the company, and then set her up to fail.

Nationwide said Lucarell took the loans and grants the company offered, kept poor books, voluntarily signed agreements and then defaulted on the loan.

In November, a jury sided with Lucarell. More than 80 percent of the damages awarded were punitive: $5 million for misappropriation of her name, $11 million for retaliation and $20 million for constructive discharge.

“If a judge feels the jury has made a decision based on passion, rather than reason, then, in those circumstances, it is not uncommon for a judge to reduce a jury’s charges,” said Louis Katz, a Poland attorney.

Lucarell said in a statement Monday, “First and foremost, we must take Nationwide to task for the lies they’re promulgating about me and about my family.”

She insists that since the jury award, Nationwide has deliberately stated and re-stated fabrications that were proved, during the trial, to be deceptive.

“We shall respond vigorously to the lies Nationwide has been disseminating, which are intended to not only discredit me, but to deter other agents from taking similar legal action against them,” she said.

Lucarell has retained the Rubenstein Associates public-relations firm in Liberty to issue statements on her behalf.

“Although Nationwide welcomes the partial reduction of the award, [the company] believes the court erred in failing to apply the mandatory caps on damages to all of the plaintiff’s tort claims,” Nancy Smeltzer, a Nationwide public-relations consultant, said Monday night. “We, therefore, strongly disagree with the ruling and will continue to dispute the amount of the award.

“Nationwide vigorously opposes the decision in this case. Nationwide is asking the judge to reverse the verdict in our favor, or, alternatively, to grant us a new trial,” Smeltzer said.

Nationwide appealed the punitive-damage award, and visiting Judge Thomas J. Pokorny, who heard the case in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, responded Jan. 31 by reducing the punitive award on retaliation from $11 million to $800,000, and the noneconomic damages on the retaliation claim from $400,000 to $300,000, but he left the other awards intact.

Ohio law caps the amount of money that can be awarded in certain lawsuits. Only part of the Lucarell lawsuit fell under those caps, Judge Pokorny said. He then found that the issue of retaliation by Nationwide did not warrant damages of $11.4 million.

“In its post-trial pleadings, Nationwide has sought to advise the court of the legal errors that occurred at trial and the factual misstatements made by various witnesses that improperly affected the outcome of the case,” Smeltzer said. “Nationwide is confident that its claims will be ruled upon favorably before this case is ultimately decided.”

Lucarell’s lawyer, Matthew Ries of Caryn Groedel & Associates Co., said the law and the cap that applies to it should not be applied to employment-related claims.

“The damages were lowered as a result of the court’s application of Ohio’s tort-reform statute,” Ries said. “In 2005, the Ohio Legislature passed a law that limits emotional and punitive damages that a plaintiff can recover for tort actions. Tort actions are typically personal injury/negligence, product liability and asbestos claims.”

While the amount of the award was reduced, Ries still believes the ruling was a win for Lucarell.

At least one juror thinks Lucarell deserves more than the $10 million figure.

Jack Walp, the foreman for the November trial, said the jurors weren’t given much guidance and didn’t originally realize they would be giving two separate awards: compensatory and punitive. Despite this, he feels the new number is still reasonable.

“I don’t really have a problem with them lowering the amount,” Walp said. “I think we’re still in the ballpark.”

Contributor: Peter H. Milliken, staff writer.

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, University of Akron and professional media outlets including WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator, The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio, both of Akron.

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