Jury Awards Bigfork Woman $5.3 Million in Insurance Lawsuit

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – A federal jury has ordered an insurance company to pay a Bigfork woman $5.3 million in damages in a bad-faith lawsuit that accused the company of failing to pay her medical expenses after a head-on car crash in January 2003.

“This was a very intelligent jury and they weren’t fooled by any of the usual official excuses, and they got mad,” said James A. Manley of Polson, attorney for Samantha Chilcote.

After a five-day trial and eight hours of deliberation, the jury ruled unanimously against Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co., deciding that the California-based company acted in bad faith and breach of contract in denying Chilcote’s insurance claim.

“We respectfully disagree with the decision,” Fireman’s Fund spokeswoman Susan Murdy said in an e-mail to The Associated Press Friday. “It is our position that the facts don’’t support the verdict. We plan to appeal.”

In January 2003, Chilcote suffered permanent brain injuries in a head-on car collision on U.S. Highway 2. She was not at fault and her damages exceeded the amount of the other driver’s policy limit.

Chilcote, a doctoral student at the time, was covered under her family’s insurance plan for $1.5 million in underinsured motorist benefits and $15,000 in medical benefits. The company refused to pay the underinsured motorist coverage and delayed payment of her medical benefits until Jan. 17, 2008, cutting a check exactly five years from the date of the accident – the same day as a final pretrial conference in her civil case.

The trial ran from March 28 through April 1 in U.S. District Court in Missoula.

Jurors found the company guilty of actual malice and the verdict included $3.5 million in punitive damages, while the remaining $1.8 million was ordered for compensatory damages, such as medical bills, loss of past and future earning capacity, physical pain and suffering, mental and emotional injury and loss of established course of life. The jury also found the company guilty of violating Montana’s Unfair Trade Practices Act and awarded Chilcote $35,000.

“It was a classic case of David and Goliath, where they are just trying to wear you out,” Chilcote said. “I was completely overwhelmed and I’m really thankful to the jury for doing the right thing, and to my legal team for standing behind me. It has been a really long, long hard road.”

Chilcote’s unpaid medical bills were turned over to collections and the insurance company’s refusal to pay delayed and interfered with her medical treatment, the lawsuit charged.

Chilcote, who has received her doctorate and works the Flathead Lake Biological Station, suffers from a short-term memory defect and is still undergoing treatment for her brain injury.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy must determine if the verdict complies with Montana law. He also will rule on post-judgment briefs filed by Fireman’s Fund seeking to strike or reduce the punitive damages, discount the $90,000 in attorneys’ fees and about $480,000 in interest.

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