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$100M Judgment Against Nationwide

October 27, 1998

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ A jury has awarded $100 million to a group whose lawsuit accused Nationwide Insurance of discrimination for refusing to write policies for black homeowners and leaving minority neighborhoods out of marketing campaigns.

``We’re absolutely stunned,″ Constance Chamberlin, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), said after the jury announced its decision Monday. ``It’s a remarkable verdict.″

The decision by a Richmond Circuit Court jury of six blacks and one white was the first of its kind in the nation, said Shanna Smith, executive director of the National Fair Housing Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit agency.

Similar cases elsewhere against the Columbus, Ohio-based insurer have been settled, Ms. Smith said. The largest settlement to date had been $4.5 million in a case in Toledo, Ohio.

Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. spokesman John Millen called the verdict outrageous and ``totally out of synch with the evidence as it was presented in court.″ The company said it will appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.

``Nationwide has written thousands of homeowner policies to African-American homeowners in the Richmond area and we do not unfairly discriminate,″ Millen said.

In March 1997, Nationwide and the Justice Department settled allegations that Nationwide discriminated on the basis of race. Nationwide did not acknowledge discrimination but agreed to change its underwriting practices and donated $13.2 million to assist low-income home buyers.

HOME alleged that Nationwide denied homeowners insurance to black applicants in Richmond while approving coverage for whites under similar circumstances. HOME also claimed during the two-week trial that the company’s marketing efforts were targeted to ZIP codes in predominantly white areas while black neighborhoods were excluded.

Ms. Chamberlin said HOME had 15 pairs of people _ one black and one white in each case _ pose as homeowners seeking insurance from Nationwide. In seven of the 15 cases, she said, the whites were quoted a premium and the blacks were not.

HOME also alleged that Nationwide imposed higher rates in Richmond, a majority-black city, than in its predominantly white suburbs, and that its ``penetration rate″ _ the number of policies sold per 1,000 residents _ was twice as high in white neighborhoods as in black ones.

In addition to the $100 million in punitive damages, HOME was awarded $500,000 in compensatory damages as reimbursement for the costs of investigating Nationwide.

Ms. Chamberlin said HOME would use the damages to help neighborhoods where residents were victims of discrimination.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided $1.5 million to five fair housing groups, including HOME, in 1995 to conduct testing that targeted Nationwide and other insurers.

``Today’s verdict is good news not just for minorities, but for inner city neighborhoods that have suffered far too long from redlining and other forms of discrimination,″ HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.

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