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Policyholders take a beating in Prudential deceptive-sales lawsuit

Two families that opted out of a national class action settlement against Prudential Life Insurance Co. won the verdict but weren't awarded the billions of dollars in punitive damages they sought.

"We're very pleased with the verdict, especially given the excessive demands of the plaintiffs."

A federal jury in Florida awarded only $66,105 in compensatory damages for Prudential's deceptive sales practices, but rejected allegations of intentional fraud. The award was far less than the $101,000 in compensatory damages and an unspecified amount of additional punitive damages sought by the plaintiffs. One of the plaintiffs had rejected $500,000 from the class action settlement in order to sue Prudential in this case.

Four other plaintiffs walked away from the case empty-handed.

"We're very pleased with the verdict, especially given the excessive demands of the plaintiffs," says a spokesperson for Prudential. "We're particularly pleased that the jury rejected the allegations of fraud."

Prudential successfully argued that because it had paid $2.4 billion to policyholders as part of the class action settlement, shelled out more than $200 million in fines to state insurance regulators, and changed its sales practices, there was no need for further punishment.

Jack Scarola, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in Cruz et al. vs. Prudential and a partner at Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley, argued that the national settlement, although approved by attorneys general and insurance commissioners in all 50 states, and numerous federal judges, still allowed Prudential to hold on to between $2 billion and $15 billion in "ill-gotten" gains.

"Even if they have changed, the reform of past misconduct does not justify their keeping ill-gotten gains."

According to Scarola, Prudential estimated that 6 percent of its policies between 1980 and 1998 were sold using misleading sales practices, but in Florida, where the insurer made extra efforts to locate policyholders who had been deceived, the percentage of victims dramatically increased. According to the Florida Department of Insurance, 21 percent of people who bought Prudential policies between 1982 and 1995 filed claims for restitution under the terms of the national class action settlement.

In addition to this alleged undercounting of the affected policyholders, and the profits Prudential made from their policies, Scarola doesn't accept the insurer's claims that it is a reformed company.

"Even if they have changed, the reform of past misconduct does not justify their keeping ill-gotten gains," says Scarola.

Despite the setback, Scarola plans to keep after Prudential. The first of Scarola's three lawsuits making the same charges against Prudential in Florida state courts is scheduled to begin in April in Palm Beach county.

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