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Liberty Mutual expected to appeal $42 million judgment in woman's work comp case

The Pennington County Courthouse

The Pennington County Courthouse

A Pennington County jury recently returned a $42 million award to a Rapid City woman in a bad faith claim, but when Fern Johnson will see any compensation from Liberty Mutual Insurance remains unclear.

The verdict is the second jury decision returned in Johnson's favor since 2017. Her court battle began nearly 12 years ago and is likely far from over. 

The attorneys representing Johnson are G. Verne Goodsell, David Barari, and Nate Oviatt of the Goodsell & Oviatt, LLP, law firm in Rapid City.

Goodsell said Friday that he expects Liberty Mutual Insurance to appeal the decision, which is expected with that amount of money. 

But first, Goodsell said, Judge Jane Wipf Pfeifle must making a ruling first, which has yet to happen.

"We anticipate that Liberty Mutual will make motions for reduction. Her ruling would be the judgment of the case and then from that judgment Liberty Mututal would have the right to appeal," Goodsell said.

Johnson, he said, is determined to create a record of Liberty Mutual conduct when it comes to "long tail cases," which is a term used to describe medical payments made for life due to a work injury.

"If you are found to have a work injury and need medical care for life it's up to the insurer to pay for that medical care," Goodsell said. "If they can find some reason to cut the benefits off, then the workers simply are left out to dry." 

The South Dakota Supreme Court, the South Dakota Department of Labor, and the lower court have all affirmed that Johnson's medical care is lifelong and that Liberty Mutual is responsible to pay those medical costs. 

Sometimes, people whose injuries were determined initially to require lifelong care do get better and a provision in state law allows a carrier to cease payments if they can establish a change of condition. 

That's what Liberty Mutual did in August 2002 after hiring a doctor to assess Johnson's case and opined that Johnson's hernia was causally related to her employment at UPS, but her groin pain was not. 

Johnson appealed that decision to the circuit court, which reversed the decision in March 2004.

Goodsell said his client is determined to "see it through" so that others can have a case to reference if they're faced with the same situation. 

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