Jury Awards 3.5 Million in Punitive Damages for USAA's Handling of Property Claim
By ALLISON HOFFMAN
April 8, 2008
Marine captain who is on his third tour in Iraq was awarded $3.5 million in punitive damages Tuesday from a servicemembers' insurance company for water damage to his house.
Capt. John Colombero already won $50,000 in damages for emotional distress last week after his lawyers argued that he spent time between deployments arguing with his insurance company, USAA. The insurer had denied a 2004 claim for $84,744 in damage to his house in Oceanside, south of the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton.
Colombero's father said financial uncertainty and paperwork associated with the insurance claim and lawsuit took their toll on his son.
""The Marines don't give you much flexibility, so he had to take care of the documents and then worry about his deployment too,"" John Colombero, Sr., said in an interview. ""He'd get up at 4:30 in the morning and come home at 10:30 at night and then have to deal with this.""
USAA spokesman Roger Wildermuth defended the company's work and said the insurer plans to appeal the damages.
Jurors indicated on court forms that the punitive award was intended to punish USAA for malice, oppression and fraudulent conduct, said Ricardo Echeverria, Colombero's lawyer.
An insurance litigation analyst said the damages would likely be reduced.
""I say 'wow' because it's really an amazing jump to get from the initial award to those punitive damages,"" said David Rossmiller, managing editor of the Insurance Coverage Law Blog. ""It absolutely plays into people's minds, that he's a Marine. Would they have given the same award to somebody else? Maybe not.""
USAA, a private company based in San Antonio, provides insurance and financial services to 5.6 million servicemembers and their families.
Colombero, 34, originally of San Jose, bought his three-bedroom house for $352,000 in 2002 and rented out the spare bedrooms to make his payments. In 2004, after he returned from a tour in Baghdad, Colombero decided to build an addition. A pipe burst during construction, damaging the foundation.
Colombero, who testified before he deployed again March 20, heard about the verdict when he made on a phone call to his fiancee, Kimberly Collins, from Iraq.
""We were in there with the jurors, so I put him on speakerphone and he thanked them for their service,"" Collins said. ""Then I took him off speakerphone and told him they just gave him $3.5 million, and he just said, 'Oh my God.'