Madison - St. Clair Record

Friday, November 15, 2019

St. Clair County jurors rule for State Farm in fire claim suit; Plaintiff had sought to 'teach industry a lesson'

By Ann Maher | Mar 14, 2016


St. Clair County jurors found in favor of State Farm Insurance Friday night in a fraud lawsuit brought by Belleville building owner Ronnie Phillips.

Phillips had sought more than $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages, arguing that he was unable to rebuild after a fire in May 2010 destroyed 205 East Main St. because he was not fully compensated for his loss.

He claimed that a measuring error in his policy, failing to take into account a second floor, was discovered after the fire and that he was "tricked" into accepting a reformed policy that under-valued the property's actual cash value.

Phillips was paid a total of $823,000 for the loss, including $87,000 for lost income, according to testimony. He was originally paid $436,000 for the loss, until the square footage error was detected. He bought the building in 1998 for approximately $60,000.

Defense attorney Martin Morrissey of Belleville said that field underwriter Stephanie Stover, who was the face of State Farm at trial, had admitted her measuring mistake when it was discovered, apologized for it, and remedied it.

"This case is about money," Morrissey said. "It's about a mistake that led to more money...and now he wants more."

He said that Phillips got "more than he thought" he would and "more than he wanted to buy."

"This is not a picture of fraud," he said.

But plaintiff attorney Penni Livingston of Fairview Heights told jurors that State Farm engaged in "hocus pocus" and she encouraged jurors to "send a message."

She said Phillips was induced to accept less than what he was owed.

"She makes a measurement don't notice there's a second floor?"

Livingston said that it took a year and a half to pay more on the amount it owed, and it required litigation to resolve.

She said the industry "needs to be taught a lesson."

"Premium takers, coverage fakers, money rakers...they have the power," she said.

"This is not about a's about sending a message to the company. We're not going to tolerate the behavior. They're going to get dinged."

She cautioned not to "slaughter them," but "reform them."

"The corporate culture we need to change it."

The five-day trial presided over by Associate Judge Christopher Kolker ended with closing arguments at 5 p.m. Jurors deliberated until 8 p.m.

In closing, Morrissey also included a couple of graphics on a projector - one, a Monopoly card, "Bank error in your favor, collect $200." And another, State Farm "does not equal" sign next to a picture of an ATM machine.

Morrissey said that Phillips got "everything" he purchased under contract. He also said that he was credited for premiums paid for coverage he "never wanted to begin with."

"What a deal. What a good deal," he said.

"He wanted the lowest of low coverage. If it was higher, I don't think he'd have bought it."

As for a dispute between the cost to rebuild the structure, Morrissey said the plaintiff's expert was making a comparison to a building in Swansea.

"Insurance attaches to the building (covered)...not to some other building in Swansea," he said.

As for punitive damages, Morrissey said there has to be "actual harm."

"There isn't any egregious conduct," he said.

"If we start punishing people for doing good things - that's the 'what' of this case," he said.

"We want to have companies that address mistakes and assist customers," he said.

State Farm also was represented by Michael Bedesky of Belleville, who delivered opening arguments.

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