$16 Million to $1

Failure to Provide a Proper Standard for Damages Reduced Judgement  

Post 4758

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In Malcolm Wiener v. AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company, No. 3:18-cv-00106-RJC-DSC, United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division (March 8, 2024) Wiener obtained a $16 Million jury award that the Fourth Circuit required the USDC to address AXA’s argument for post-trial relief challenging the amount of damages AXA argued that the jury rested its $16 million award on an improper standard, and thus, that the award lacks a basis in substantial evidence.

BACKGROUND

In 1986 and 1987, Malcolm Wiener purchased three life insurance policies from AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company with a total face value of $16 million. In December 2013, each of the three policies lapsed for nonpayment of premiums. Wiener sought reinstatement, but AXA denied his application.

The current case relates only to AXA’s negligence in coding Wiener’s medical history. In January 2018, Wiener filed the present action alleging, among other things, that AXA was negligent in “failing to adequately read, understand and verify and accurately report Plaintiff’s medical history, conditions and events to third parties.” According to evidence introduced at trial, Wiener sought new insurance coverage from at least eight carriers but two denied him coverage altogether and those that offered insurance made only preliminary, revocable offers for $10 million policies at double the standard rate. Wiener’s history of atrial fibrillation and monoclonal gammopathy was the basis for the refusals.

The Fourth Circuit addressed the causation issue, holding that “[a]mple evidence supported the jury’s verdict for Wiener.” “But because AXA’s argument for post-trial relief challenging the amount of damages . . . was neither raised nor briefed before [the Fourth Circuit],” the panel remanded that narrow issue back to the USDC.

DISCUSSION

AXA contended the jury based its award on an improper standard (the $16 million death benefit from his lapsed policies); and second, that, even if the $16 million death benefit was an appropriate measure, Wiener failed to provide necessary evidence of future premiums to offset that $16 million award.

Under North Carolina law, the party seeking damages must show that the amount of damages is based upon a standard that will allow the finder of fact to calculate the amount of damages with reasonable certainty.

Here, the jury awarded Wiener actual damages of $16 million before deducting $8 million for his own failure to mitigate. The jury’s award, AXA argued, relied upon an improper standard because this action sought compensatory damages for AXA’s negligence in coding Wiener’s medical history, not reinstatement of Wiener’s previous policies.

The Court found that Wiener’s lapsed $16 million death benefit is an improper baseline of damages.  Because Wiener offered no baseline to support the jury’s $16 million award, the award lacks a sufficient evidentiary basis.

Throughout this case, Wiener has offered no expert testimony or other evidence of the damage caused by his effective uninsurability. And the record makes clear that, even absent the erroneous MIB codes, Wiener was effectively uninsurable or uninsurable at a reasonable cost. The Court found that “no substantial evidence” supports the jury’s $16 million actual damages award.

Even extending Wiener “the benefit of all reasonable inferences” and resolving all disputed facts in his favor, the Court found that no jury, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the winning party, could have properly reached the conclusion reached by this jury on compensatory damages. The Court found that the damages award was against the clear weight of the evidence and conditionally granted a new trial in the event that the Order is vacated or reversed.

AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company’s Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, was granted. The jury verdict was set aside, and Plaintiff Malcolm Wiener is instead entitled to an award of nominal damages in the amount of one dollar ($1).

ZALMA OPINION

Nothing is certain in the law. The $16 million verdict was overturned because, although the jury felt bad for Mr. Weiner, the reason his insurance policies lapsed was that he did not pay the premium and when he tried to reinstate them his health conditions had changed and he was uninsurable. The jury rewarded him with the cash value of the policies that would have been available if he had paid the premium which had no relationship to the actual alleged tortious conduct. The big verdict became nothing more than a piece of paper that counsel could frame and hang on a wall but will not result in cash to the plaintiff.

(c) 2024 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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