An elderly woman living in a Billings retirement home won a $34 million verdict last Friday when a federal jury found that her insurance company had violated its long-term-care contract.
The verdict in U.S. District Court in Billings is among the largest jury awards in the state’s history.
Arlene Hull, 90, formerly of Joliet, and her daughter, Diana Hull Senne, sued Ability Insurance Co., and related companies, in September 2010 in U.S. District Court in Billings.
Hull alleged that the Omaha, Neb.-based company violated the terms of a long-term-care policy when it cut off her assisted-living benefits in St. John’s Lutheran Home in January 2010, saying she no longer qualified.
Hull has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Long-term-care policy holders are responsible people who don’t want to be a burden to others and should not be wrongfully denied benefits under these policies,” said Hull’s attorney, Daniel Bidegaray of Bozeman.
Hull did not testify, but the jury saw video of her, Bidegaray said.
The seven-member jury awarded Hull $250,000 for breach of contract; $2 million for violation of Montana’s Unfair Trade Practices law; and $32 million in punitive damages.
The verdict had to be unanimous. Deliberations began Thursday afternoon and finished by about noon Friday.
Bidegaray noted that Montana law caps punitive damages at $10 million. He added that he expected Ability’s lawyers will seek to reduce the award and will probably appeal.
Billings attorney Paul Collins, who represented Ability, declined to comment.
Lucas Hamilton, spokesman for state Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen, said Monday that the office won’t comment on whether it’s investigating any complaints against Ability. The office comments only after complaints are closed, he said.
Arlene Hull and her husband, Bill, spent most of their lives farming and ranching and raising a family near Joliet.
In 1997, the couple bought a long-term-care policy from Mutual Protective Insurance. Mutual later changed its name to Medico Insurance Co. Bill Hull died in 1998, and Arlene Hull continued paying the premiums.
In 2007, a doctor diagnosed Arlene Hull with dementia. Because of her increasing inability to care for herself, she moved into St. John’s in January 2008 and began receiving her long-term-care benefits under her Medico policy.
Meanwhile, the company in 2007 sold its stock and long-term-care policies in its subsidiary, Medico Life Insurance Co., to Ability Resources Inc., Bidegaray said. Ability changed the Medico name to Ability Insurance Co.
Ability took over Hull’s policy, reviewed her case and in January 2010 cut off her benefits, Bidegaray said. Hull’s daughter appealed, but the company denied the benefits.
Ability, he said, responded that St. John’s medical staff and an independent nursing consultant concluded that Hull did not need “continual supervision due to a severe cognitive impairment” and that Hull’s doctor said she was “moderately” not “severely” impaired.
A doctor hired by Ability agreed that Hull needed the care she had been receiving at St. Johns, Bidegaray said. Ability reinstated the benefits in October 2011 but refused to pay for the period of time Hull went without benefits.
Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull presided over the five-day trial.