Federal Jury Awards Woman’s Estate $6.2 Million

June 19, 2009

A jury in Rapid City, S.D. has awarded $6.2 million to the estate of the late Teri Powell, a former Spanish teacher who died of cancer in 2007.

The jury, in U.S. District Court, sided with Powell in a dispute over disability insurance from a company that took her premiums but refused to pay her claims.

The award can be appealed. A CUNA lawyer refused comment on the jury’s decision.

The verdict will affect people nationwide, said Powell’s attorney, Michael Abourezk.

He said CUNA has made a practice of denying claims filed by customers who sought coverage under their disability insurance policies when a disability prevented them from working.

“One of the critical things about the whole case is that all of this has been secret,” Abourezk said. “All of the documents showing what they’ve been doing have been kept behind closed doors, until this trial took place.”

In 2001, while she was teaching at Rapid City Stevens High School, Powell got a home equity loan and bought disability insurance from CUNA Mutual Insurance Society. Her health got worse over the next year, but she maintained her disability insurance coverage.

When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, Powell applied for benefits from CUNA from far back as 2002, when she was forced to stop working full time.

CUNA had denied Powell’s claim and said she was capable of working — even after her cancer diagnosis.

In a deposition recorded 30 days before she died, Powell said she would not back down even though the stress of the lawsuit could damage her health.

“I want to be treated fairly,” Powell said, “but I also want to know that other people are not going to be abused like I am being abused. And I want this company to come clean and treat their clients with respect.”

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