On Sept. 28 a Broward jury ruled in favor of a plaintiff who filed suit against his insurance company to receive what he perceived as the full amount owed to him in accordance with his uninsured motorist policy. The jury’s nearly $1.58 million dollar verdict arose after settlement discussions fell through between the parties.
Jeffrey H. Wolfson — himself a personal injury attorney — filed suit against his insurance carrier, Liberty Mutual Insurance, in light of a Nov. 12, 2015, car collision in which he was struck by an insured motorist in Fort Lauderdale.
According to William C. Ruggiero, the Fort Lauderdale-based personal injury attorney who represented Wolfson in his suit against Liberty Mutual, his client endured a number of debilitating injuries in the crash.
“There were distinct injuries,” Ruggiero said, noting that in addition to the neck surgery Wolfson received on a spinal disc as a result of the accident, he had experienced another one prior. These surgeries, he added, are likely to hasten wear and tear on surrounding discs. In the case of his client, that’s exactly what happened. Wolfson also experienced a fracture in the on a vertebra in his lumbar spine in addition to an eye injury and mild concussion.
The suit was prompted because Liberty Mutual “tendered early on” concerning Wolfson’s uninsured motorist coverage, at which point he filed a complaint against them in Broward Circuit Court, as stated by Ruggiero.
“My jurors couldn’t get their arms around it — why are you suing your own insurance?!” Ruggiero recounted.
The complaint alleges that Liberty Mutual “has failed, refused and otherwise neglected” to compensate Wolfson pursuant to the terms outlined in his uninsured motorist’s coverage, which holds that the company is obligated to “pay all covered losses resulting from the negligence of an uninsured and/or underinsured driver” in the event of an accident. Additionally, the complaint holds that Wolfson himself “complied with all the terms and conditions of said policy and all conditions precedent to bring this lawsuit.”
Read the complaint:
Ruggiero said Liberty Mutual’s attorneys contended that Wolfson’s injuries were not as severe as he alleged and presented evidence that the medical treatment he sought was inordinately expensive. Furthermore, the defense painted the plaintiff’s injuries as the result of aging and degradation rather than the accident in question, an assertion Ruggiero thoroughly disputed.
Liberty Mutual hired several expert witnesses to reinforce their position, including a neurologist, ophthalmologist (eye doctor), two orthopedic doctors and a radiologist. The radiologist, Dr. Stephen Brown, became a critical component of the case and — according to Ruggiero — may have played a large role in the favorable verdict for Wolfson.
“Stephen Brown does a lot of this work for the defense and I’ve been fighting with him for 10 to 15 years in my practice,” Ruggiero said. Brown was one of the witnesses chiefly cited by the defense to argue that Wolfson’s injuries were the byproduct of naturally occurring causes rather than the crash.
“[The court] took his video deposition because he said he was not going to be available for trial — I cross-examined him on whether or not he was a practicing doctor,” Ruggiero said. Following Brown’s deposition, Ruggiero subpoenaed the doctor to appear in court to give his testimony in-person.
“He sends a letter saying he’s unavailable,” Ruggiero said. Brown told the court that he was in New York and could not attend the trial in person; Ruggerio relented on his subpoena once the doctor sent copies of his plane tickets to the court on the third day of proceedings.
It was at this point that Ruggerio raised the issue of Brown’s financial compensation with the court: how much was he being paid by Liberty Mutual for his services?
“The judge finally ordered the charges … and it turned out he charged Liberty Mutual $58,000 to testify at trial. He was hiding it, so that was pretty fun,” Ruggerio shared. “Not very often a witness hired by an insurance company would charge $58,000, especially just to look at films.”
Ruggerio is confident that the jury’s verdict in his client’s favor was largely due to the payment extended to Brown by Liberty Mutual as well as his subsequent concealment.
“I think people were turned off by that number,” Ruggerio said, noting that the ophthalmologist and neurologist charged Liberty Mutual $23,000 and $7,000 respectively. “I’ve been doing this for 28 years and have never seen anything like that number; it was just too big!”
Although there had been talks of a settlement, the numbers the plaintiffs and defense had in mind were ultimately irreconcilable.
“When they’re offering you $100,000 it’s hard to settle when you think the case is worth a million! So we said no, let’s let the jury decide,” Ruggerio said. “We didn’t know what the jury was going to do. I think they did the right thing by my client; I asked them for $5 million and they gave me $1.58 million.”
Read the jury’s $1.58 million verdict here:
Liberty Mutual’s counsel, Isabel Victoria Alvarez, declined to comment for this story. The company’s Media Relations & Sponsorship director, Glenn Greenberg, told the Daily Business Review that Liberty Mutual does not publicly comment on matters of litigation.
Ruggerio described the courtroom proceedings as “a clean trial” and noted that he doesn’t anticipate any further legal issues on the matter despite the considerable time it took to reach a jury.
“These things take a long time but that’s just the way these things go,” Ruggerio said. “There’s no such thing that’s easy in the courtroom; [the defense] knew if I was able to establish what that bill was they were going to go down in flames.”
Case: Jeffrey H. Wolfson v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company
Case No.: CACE16016026
Description: Negligence Case
Filing date: Aug. 30, 2016
Settlement date: Sept. 28, 2018
Judge: Broward County Circuit Judge Mily Rodriguez Powell
Plaintiff’s attorneys: William C. Ruggiero, Fort Lauderdale
Defense attorneys: Isabel Alvarez and Nicole Ramos
Verdict amount: $1,579,629.00