BIG PAYMENT: Jury awards woman $8 million

Wednesday, December 15th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Jurors didn't feel that Mildred Martin needed to get as much money as they awarded her, but the jury foreman says they felt the insurance company she sued needed to get a message. The message cost at least $8 million.

The federal jury awarded the 63-year-old motel cleaning woman $8 million Monday after finding that Dairyland Insurance Co. acted in bad faith when it denied her claim after a 1996 auto accident. Dairyland, a subsidiary of Sentry Insurance in Stevens Point, Wis., agreed after the decision was returned in favor of Ms. Martin that it would not appeal and settled the lawsuit to keep the jurors from voting on punitive damages.

How much above $8 million the company agreed to pay was not revealed. "We didn't think Mildred Martin needed to get that much money, but we felt the insurance company needed to get a message," said jury foreman James A. Hall of Choctaw. "We hope other insurance companies aren't that callous and uncaring."

Jurors compromised at $8 million, he said. A verdict as high as $90 million was discussed. Ms. Martin was injured Jan. 10, 1996, in a traffic accident at an Oklahoma City intersection. The other driver was ticketed with speeding and driving without lights. Ms. Martin was covered up to $20,000 for accidents caused by an uninsured motorist. But Dairyland rejected her claim, saying she was at fault for not yielding.

The insurance company then raised her rates. She blames the accident for medical problems that left her unable to wear dentures and to eat solid foods. Surgery will involve grafting a bone from her leg into her mouth. Her attorneys said insurance executives kept insisting Ms. Martin was at fault until internal documents showed the company had reversed that finding three years ago.

The insurance company said it had not acted in bad faith. It said it had tried to settle the claim before trial and had offered $4,000 last year. It also disputed that Ms. Martin's difficulties with dentures were a result of the accident.

During closing arguments, a videotaped deposition of a Sentry vice president was replayed. In it, the official was asked if he agreed it would be devastating to lose your teeth. "You lose your teeth, you eat soup. That's just the way I operate. So, devastating? No," Kenneth Ashley said.