Photo: Zachary Korb/Flickr

A ruling that Ameriprise Financial engaged in deceptive conduct in selling a couple insurance and financial services has been upheld by an appeals court.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the protections of the state’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law extended to Gary and Mary Gregg in their lawsuit against Ameriprise and related entities, upholding an Allegheny County trial judge’s ruling.

At trial, the judge found that an Ameriprise agent duped the Greggs into obtaining certain life insurance policies that were to their financial detriment, and awarded them $52,000.

“This court finds that [the insurance companies’] conduct created a likelihood of confusion or misunderstanding in their dealings with the [Greggs]. Even if the financial advisor did not directly misrepresent the cost of the life insurance policy, he failed to clearly and fully explain the cost and terms of the policy; and the [Greggs] reasonably believed they would not have to pay additional monies to fund the policy once their existing policies were transferred to the [insurance companies],” according to the trial judge’s ruling, laid out in Superior Court Judge Deborah Kunselman’s opinion.

Ameriprise argued on appeal that defense verdicts delivered by the jury on the Greggs’ misrepresentation and fraud claims necessitate the dismissal of their UTPCPL claim.

However, Kunselman wrote that the Greggs’ claims all presented distinct legal issues.

“The UTPCPL is for consumer protection. It undoes the ills of sharp business dealings by vendors, who, as here, may be counseling consumers in very private, highly technical concerns,” Kunselman said. “Like the Greggs, those consumers may be especially reliant upon a vendor’s specialized skill, training, and experience in matters with which consumers have little or no expertise. Therefore, the legislature has placed the duty of UTPCPL compliance squarely and solely on vendors; they are not to engage in deceitful conduct and have no legally cognizable excuse, if they do.”

The Superior Court also refused to mitigate the damages against Ameriprise. Kunselman said the insurance company’s reliance on the Third Restatement of Torts for damage calculations was flawed.

“The statutory language of the UTPCPL governs this UTPCPL claim. Thus, the insurance companies’ reliance upon the Restatement (Third) of Restitution—i.e., a treatise on common law—is obviously misplaced. The trial judge properly grounded his award in the statutory remedies that our General Assembly enacted within the UTPCPL,” Kunselman said.

Kathy Condo of Babst, Calland, Clements and Zomnir in Pittsburgh represents the defendants and did not return a call seeking comment.

Kenneth Behrend in Pittsburgh represents the plaintiffs. He said, “The overarching issue here impacts all consumers in Pennsylvania, and they’ve recognized the statute operates like a strict liability statute, which means the consumer does not have to prove the unscrupulous business intended to deceive them.”

(Copies of the 21-page opinion in Gregg v. Ameriprise Financial, PICS No. 18-1147, are available at http://at.law.com/PICS.)