When disabled clients first call the O’Ryan Law Firm, one of the first questions they ask is whether they can obtain punitive damages for the wrongful denial of their disability claim. No doubt, many of our clients have suffered incredible financial and emotional damages as a result of the insurance company either denying their claim outright or terminating the claim before the client can actually return to work. We have had clients suffer terrible financial losses, such as the loss of a vehicle, loss of their credit rating or even the loss of their home through foreclosure, due to the insurance company wrongfully denying their disability claim. Unfortunately, if the client’s disability claim falls under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, commonly known as ERISA, the courts have found that punitive damages are not awardable when the disability claim is subject to ERISA.
ERISA is a federal statute that was passed in 1974 by Congress in order to protect participants of employee benefit plans. Most individuals receive medical coverage, life insurance coverage and disability coverage through their employer. Most employer sponsored benefit plans are governed by ERISA. There are two exceptions: governmental entities and church plans. If your employer is a governmental entity, such as a public university or school corporation, or a church plan, then you would not be covered by ERISA; instead, your claim is subject to state law. Under state law, you may be able to recover damages in excess of what the disability policy provides in the way of monthly disability benefits.
However, most disability claims are governed by ERISA. Unfortunately, the courts have found that ERISA preempts any state laws that allow for compensatory or punitive damages in excess of the policy benefits. For example, in the case of Midwest Security Life Ins. Co. v. Stroup, 730 N.E.2d 163 (Ind. 2000) the Indiana Supreme Court denied the Stroups’ request for punitive damages finding that their health insurance claims were preempted by ERISA. In this case, Patrick and Theresa Stroup received a group health insurance policy from Midwest Security Life Insurance Company as a result of Patrick’s employment and the policy was governed by ERISA because it was an employer sponsored health insurance plan. In January, 1993, Theresa sought predetermination of benefits for surgery to correct congenital problems with her jaw and Midwest approved the surgery. About four months after Theresa’s surgeries, in August 1994, Midwest amended its plan to exclude coverage for orthognathic surgery. In October 1995, she awoke in considerable pain to discover that her jaw had broken. One week later, Theresa underwent bone graft surgery to repair her jaw. In January 1996, Theresa was forced to undergo another surgery because of continued pain and muscle spasms in her jaw.