A federal jury Tuesday awarded a Spokane Valley nurse $570,000, agreeing with her that she was fired illegally by an insurance company after contracting a neurological disease.
Sharon Arger, 30, of Veradale, smiled through tears when the verdict was announced after five hours of deliberations.
The five-woman, two-man jury decided Medical Service Corp. of Spokane fired Arger with malice and reckless indifference.
Company officials testified they fired Arger for incompetence.
Federal and state laws protect the disabled from being fired over their handicaps. Arger has syringomyelia, a rare disorder in which liquid-filled cavities form in the spinal cord.
Arger’s prognosis is uncertain. The disease can be fatal or cause paralysis.
The jury awarded $500,000 to punish MSC and stop it from similar behavior in the future.
“The jury did not like MSC,” said one of Arger’s attorneys, Jeff Supinger.
A weary Arger would only say, “Thanks to my attorneys for believing in my case and trusting me.”
MSC Vice President Linda Casimir left the courtroom quickly and refused to comment.
Company attorney James Kalamon said he was “stunned” at the verdict and the award. He said company officials will discuss a possible appeal later. Federal verdicts in civil trials must be unanimous.
In addition to punitive damages, Arger was awarded $51,300 in back pay and benefits and $18,400 for pain and suffering.
For the past week, her legal team put MSC on trial, portraying the company as rigid, unfeeling and solely profit-oriented.
Arger, an intensive care nurse, was hired from Sacred Heart Medical Center in April 1993 to review claims and underwrite customers.
A single mother at the time, Arger testified she took a huge pay cut to quit working nights and holidays. She was fired less than five months later.
A string of MSC employees testified that Arger routinely did not fill out documents completely and when she did, they couldn’t read her handwriting. They also accused Arger of doing personal business on company time, dressing too casually and talking down to lessertrained nurses.
But most of the same employees agreed that Arger was honest and a workhorse who volunteered to help others even though she shouldered more duties than the rest of the employees in MSC’s health resources unit.
Supinger suggested Arger’s co-workers had a pattern of jealousy toward anyone younger, smarter and more attractive. The bottom line, he said, was that the company didn’t want to be saddled with Arger’s future medical bills.
“This a company whose motto is, ‘let’s hold costs down,”’ an angry and animated Supinger said during final arguments earlier Tuesday.
At one point, Supinger slammed a legal folder down on a table and said, “Shame on you, MSC.” At another point, he leaped high into the air and compared what MSC did to Arger to jumping on someone’s broken leg.
Arger’s only documented deficiency at MSC were medical absences. She missed five days of work - two for bronchitis and three for diagnostic tests. What originally was thought to be multiple sclerosis later was diagnosed as syringomyelia.