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|Thursday, April 4, 1996
Ventura County Edition
Jury Awards $1 Million for Denied Claim;
Lawsuit: An insurance company is hit with the judgment after it failed to pay the legal bills of a woman who was sued by her daughter in 1991.;
By: PAUL ELIAS
SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
A Ventura County jury on Wednesday awarded a former Simi Valley woman more than $1 million after finding that her insurance company violated terms of her homeowner's policy when it refused to help her defend a lawsuit. Carol Tuzinski sued the Fire Insurance Exchange, an arm of the Farmers Insurance group, after company officials denied her claim of $36,000, which she spent fighting a lawsuit brought by her daughter. Tuzinski's daughter claimed in a 1991 suit that her father molested her in 1979 and that her mother knew about the alleged molestations. The Tuzinskis denied all accusations, but settled the case for $5,000 in cash and about $10,000 in stocks in June 1993, attorney John R. Johnson said.
The couple sought reimbursement for legal costs from their homeowner's policy, asserting that the case was no different than if they had been sued by someone who claimed to have been injured in their home.
The insurance carrier refused to pay, insisting that the company was not liable if the daughter's charges proved true.
Carol Tuzinski and her husband, Robert, sued the insurance company.
Ventura County Superior Court Judge William Peck agreed that the insurer was not liable for the father's claim and removed him from the lawsuit, which his attorneys are appealing.
But Peck allowed Carol Tuzinski's claim to go to trial, and the jury ultimately found that the insurance company acted fraudulently in refusing to pay for her defense. The panel awarded the woman $700,000 in punitive damages, $36,000 in actual costs and $272,000 for pain and suffering.
"We concluded that the punitive award had to be a significant number to let the insurance company know it did something wrong," jury foreman Kim Carrell said. "If they had done the right thing up front, none of this would have happened."
Defense attorney Robert J. Needham declined comment after the verdict was read, but indicated in court that an appeal is likely. During his closing arguments, Needham maintained the company's denial of the claim "was not a clandestine and an intentional act. It was a business decision based on the information we had at the time."
Tuzinski's attorneys rejected that defense and asked the jury for at least $3 million in punitive damages to "send them a message for their absolutely reprehensible behavior." Though the jury decided on only $700,000, Johnson said he was happy with the outcome.
"We are very pleased with the outcome, which we believe is very reasonable," Johnson said. Peck also awarded Johnson and his firm an additional $175,000 in attorney's fees.
The Tuzinskis now live in Las Vegas.
Copyright (c) 1996 Times Mirror Company
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