After mulling the case for three days, a Stark County jury on Tuesday found in favor of Mercy Medical on one of its six claims against the Aultman Hospital defendants. But the award is a fraction of the $110 million in past and future damages sought by Mercy, and doesn’t include punitive damages.
A $6 million verdict has both sides claiming victory in the trial between Mercy Medical Center and Aultman Health Foundation.
After mulling the case for three days, a Stark County jury on Tuesday found in Mercy’s favor on one of its six claims against the Aultman defendants.
But the award is a fraction of the $110 million in past and future damages sought by Mercy, and doesn’t include punitive damages.
“We believe this verdict is a clear message to Aultman that this unethical conduct has to stop right here, right now,” said Lee Plakas, one of Mercy’s attorneys.
Mercy President and CEO Thomas Cecconi said Mercy didn’t take the decision to sue Aultman lightly and knew the case would be hard fought.
“I think it was absolutely worth it,” Cecconi said. “The way I look at this verdict is that Mercy won.”
Aultman had a different take.
Compared with the damages Mercy sought, the jury’s award was “extraordinarily modest and insignificant,” said Allen Schulman, one of Aultman’s attorneys.
And the verdict sends the message that Aultman’s business practices are “fair, competitive and beneficial to the members of our community,” and that insurance brokers have sold AultCare and McKinley Life in fair manner, Schulman said.
“Five out of six is, I think, a victory by any stretch,” he said referring to the counts on which Mercy didn’t prevail.
The verdict doesn’t mean the case is over.
Mercy will be asking Common Pleas Judge Frank Forchione to make Aultman pay Mercy’s attorney fees, while Aultman plans to ask the judge to set aside the verdict.
Between them, the parties have spent millions of dollars fighting it out in court.
During more than two months of trial, Mercy said it was damaged by Aultman Health Foundation’s practice of secretly paying select insurance brokers who brought business to AultCare and McKinley Life and ultimately Aultman Hospital. The payments, started in 1997, continue to this day but are no longer secret.
The Aultman defendants said the conversion-support payments were in line with the foundation's charitable mission of providing quality, low-cost medical care, and accused Mercy of trying to cripple Aultman by pursuing a malicious lawsuit.
Seven of the eight jurors found that the Aultman defendants engaged in a pattern of corrupt activity by making payments to influence agents of health benefit plans, and six of those seven agreed to the award.
But the $110 million sought by Mercy was too high, and the jury didn’t believe Mercy should get future damages, according to jurors reached by phone after the verdict.
Page 2 of 2 - Mercy failed on claims that Aultman violated anti-trust law, interfered in Mercy’s business relationships, engaged in civil conspiracy and unfair competition and violated state law against deceptive trade practices.
Jurors said they methodically worked through the evidence and matched it to the law provided by the judge.
They were not swayed by Aultman’s prominent role in the community, where it is the largest employer, they said.
“You had to weed out what was important and what wasn’t” said Lisa Hughes, 45, of Lawrence Township and the jury’s forewoman.
Juror Eric Radosevic, 33, of Canton, said the payments created the possibility that brokers steered clients to Aultman insurance plans, “but we could never say that did happen.”
And given the testimony about Mercy’s management turnover and ownership changes, it was hard to separate the damage caused by Aultman from the losses Mercy inflicted on itself, said Lynnette Zimmerman, 38, a juror from Louisville.
Hughes said she thought the conversion-support program was a brilliant response to the challenges faced by the Aultman defendants in the mid-1990s, but the plan had serious flaws.
For example, Aultman didn’t think clients had a right to know how much a broker was being paid. “That’s just wrong,” Hughes said.
At the same time, Mercy was too lax in competing with Aultman and always seemed to be playing catch-up, she said.
While they didn’t agree on every issue, the jurors interviewed said their discussions were friendly and that they enjoyed the lengthy experience.
“It was interesting,” Zimmerman said. “It was not hard to stay focused at all and both sides of attorneys did such a good job.”
The jurors also had high marks for the judge, bailiff and the judge’s mother, who made them meatball subs for lunch last week.
Radosevic and Zimmerman said they were surprised to learn how much brokers are paid, in general, by insurance companies, and said they would like to see compensation levels regulated.
“It should be about who is bringing the best product,” Radosevic said.
With their service done, the jurors will head back to their regular lives on Wednesday.
“I am taking the day off,” Zimmerman said. “I’m not setting the alarm clock, I’ll tell you that.”