A Laurel woman who lost her husband to lung cancer...

...three years ago should receive punitive damages from the insurance company that refused to pay for his treatment, a federal jury in Billings decided late Wednesday afternoon.

The jury will determine the amount of those damages at a special hearing Thursday morning in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom.

The plaintiff in the case, Margaret Coddington, sued Wabash Life Insurance Co. when it failed to pay on three hospitalizations for her cancer-stricken husband, Dean, in 1989. The company maintained that the policy covered only the direct treatment of the cancer, not the related ailments that Coddington suffered as a result of the cancer.

The jury found that Wabash had breached its contract with the couple, had misrepresented their coverage under the policy and had failed to conduct a reasonable investigation of their claims. The jury did not find that the company had committed fraud, the most serious allegation in the lawsuit.

The verdict also included $6,383 in actual damages to cover the amount of the claims denied by the company. The amount of punitive damages Coddington is seeking was not brought up during the three-day trial.

During closing arguments Wednesday morning, Coddington's attorneys referred to Wabash as "peddlers of fear" who sold policies by exploiting fear of the disease. Then when it came time to pay, the insurance company made excuses to deny the claims, attorneys Cliff Edwards and Paul Warren told the jury.

Ward Swanser, attorney for Wabash, said the company did pay on claims directly related to the treatment of cancer. Wabash provided supplemental insurance for cancer treatment only, he argued. If it covered more than that, the policy would become a major medical policy something it was not intended to be and something the Coddingtons had not paid for. Swanser said premiums on the Wabash policy were only $180 a year. The Coddingtons had paid a total of $2,200 in premiums in the 17 years they owned the policy. Wabash paid them $7,300 in benefits, he said.

The company paid when the initial diagnosis was made and for the treatment of the disease itself, he said. But the last three hospitalizations were for low blood pressure, dehydration and pneumonia, not for the treatment of the cancer itself.

The most compelling testimony on the issues in the case came Tuesday in Swanser's cross examination of one of the Hettinger, N.D., physicians who treated Coddington. Dr. Brian Willoughby insisted that although Dean Coddington had been admitted to the hospital for other ailments, he had been treated for cancer because the ailments were all the result of the cancer. When Swanser asked if the doctor had actually treated any malignant cancer cells, Willoughby responded with a short lecture. 'No,'' the doctor replied. "It occurs to me that you
are splitting hairs artificially. You are trying to separate the patient from his disease. And in fact, the patient's disease was more than just the tumor cells. The patient's disease was sucking the life out of him in every way and to try to separate that out and say this part is cancer and this part is not is wrong, it's false and I object to it.''

Then the defense attorney and the doctor sparred over the definition of cancer in the policy - whether it was the pathological definition, focusing only on malignant cells, or the clinical definition, focusing on the enter realm of the disease.

Willoughby said the company wouldn't sell many policies if customers were told only the treatment of tumor cells was covered. "I mean give me a break,'' the doctor said. "You never would sell a policy if people knew that.''