Supreme Court reverses decision awarding Canfield councilwoman $2.3 million
By Justin Wier
A ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court reversed a decision awarding more than $2 million to a newly elected Canfield city councilwoman in her breach-of-contract claim against Nationwide Insurance Co.
Christine Lucarell Oliver, then Christine Lucarell, ran a Nationwide agency in Boardman Plaza and sued the insurance giant, alleging it breached her contract as a Nationwide agent.
The jury in her 2012 trial awarded her $42.8 million, but visiting Judge Thomas J. Pokorny of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court reduced that to $14,167,010 after the trial, and the Youngstown-based 7th District Court of Appeals further reduced the award to $2,375,708.
The state Supreme Court on Thursday reversed the appellate court decision, ruling that punitive damages are not recoverable in a breach-of-contract claim, and returned the case to the 7th District Court of Appeals.
Nationwide recruited Lucarell Oliver into its Agency Executive Program, which offered planning and financing for new agents. It used a business projection showing that she could earn $200,000 a year in commissions, according to the ruling.
Lucarell Oliver entered into a modified version of the program and struggled to meet her goals, the ruling said. She learned in May 2009 that her commissions would be withheld to repay a defaulted loan she received from Nationwide, and she left the company in July 2009.
She argued that she would have completed the original program, and Nationwide fraudulently persuaded her to enter the modified program by misrepresenting her production, the ruling said.
An expert witness testified that Lucarell Oliver suffered $4.8 million in lost earnings based on a 25-year career, but Nationwide presented an expert witness who claimed Lucarell Oliver’s business would not have survived for 25 years.
Of the $2,375,708 awarded to Lucarell Oliver by the appeals court, she received $300,030 on a invasion-of-privacy claim, which Nationwide did not appeal.
After Nationwide terminated her, Lucarell Oliver claimed it invaded her privacy by using her name on its mailings.
Cleveland attorney Randy Hart, who represents Lucarell, said his client will not receive any money until the case reaches a resolution and they will continue to proceed with the case.
“There’s still no decision,” Hart said. “She doesn’t have finality.”
Nationwide issued a statement Thursday saying it is pleased with the court decision.
“As we have maintained throughout this case, our objective is and has always been to help position our agents for success, not failure,” said Eric Hardgrove, director of corporate communications for Nationwide.
He added that the decision corrects fundamental legal errors that led to an improper verdict.
The 7th District Court of Appeals will determine whether Lucarell Oliver presented sufficient evidence of a breach. If so, her case will return to Mahoning County Common Pleas Court for a new trial.