Prudential Fights Off Attack on Deceptive Sales

A federal jury awarded only $66,105 Friday to two families who wanted billions of dollars in damages in a suit charging Prudential Life Insurance Co. with deceptive sales practices.

The jury awarded compensatory damages but no punitive damages in a setback for customers who wanted to put a spotlight on sales that Prudential said were flawed but had been eliminated long ago.

"We're very pleased with the verdict, especially given the excessive demands of the plaintiffs," company spokesman Robert DeFillippo said. "We're particularly pleased that the jury rejected the allegations of fraud."

Prudential argued no punishment was needed because a national class-action settlement in 1997 cost the company $4 billion, including $2.4 billion paid on policyholders' claims, and more than $200 million in regulatory fines.

Company attorneys broke into broad smiles, hugged and patted each other on the back after the jury left the courtroom. Jurors accepted Prudential's exact position on the policies and the amount of damages.

Claiming $15 billion in customer losses nationally, the policyholders' attorney suggested stiff punitive damages were needed to keep Prudential from profiting from a fraud that paid bonuses to everyone from salespeople to top executives.

The federal trial covered four families who rejected the class-action settlement. They sought at least $101,000 in damages plus an unspecified amount in punitive damages.

Nationally, policyholders claimed they were misled in a variety of ways. Many complained they were offered pension plans requiring payments for only a few years when they actually were exchanging existing life insurance policies for costlier ones. One plaintiff who lost claimed she was promised nursing home coverage but her policy didn't cover it.

"I have never seen a miscarriage of justice like this," said Edward Cohen of Boynton Beach, who was awarded $64,288 after rejecting $500,000 in mediation. "I waited 15 years to get back my own money."

Maha Mansoir and his family received the other $1,817. They were not in court.

Mark and Ella Landau and Carmen Cruz received nothing.

"I'm stunned," Mark Landau said. Cruz was not present.

John Scarola, attorney for the policyholders, said he "definitely" would appeal. More than 20 clients who rejected the national settlement have similar lawsuits pending in three state courts.

"We lost the first battle. We have at least three more battles to go, and we will not lose them all," he said outside court. "This was a jury that for whatever reason was obviously confused."

Scarola told jurors that Prudential's deceptive sales was "the largest fraud ever perpetrated on the American public" and hurt 650,000 to 1.7 million customers who bought policies from 1980 to 1998.

Prudential attorney Reid Ashinoff argued Prudential had no profits from the disputed sales and said the policyholders who sued were trying to get rich after rejecting the national settlement.