ST. LOUIS • A jury in federal court here on Monday awarded $491 million in damages in a civil lawsuit sparked about seven years ago by the collapse of a Clayton-based company selling prepaid funerals.
The suit was filed in 2009 by state life and health guarantee associations and a special receiver set up to wind down National Prearranged Services Inc.
After a five-week trial, the jury awarded $355.5 million of compensatory damages and $35.5 million in punitive damages against PNC Bank and $100 million more against Forever Enterprises, the latter being a defunct family-owned holding company.
PNC was not involved with NPS but was a defendant as a successor to Allegiant Bank, a former trustee of NPS assets.
Some banks and other companies connected to NPS have settled out of court — or have been arranging settlements — for undisclosed amounts.
Jurors took about 3½ hours of deliberations, split between Friday and Monday, to decide.
Dan Reilly, a Denver lawyer representing the guaranty associations, said they are “extremely pleased.” He called it “the final step in the process of protecting consumers in Missouri and other states.”
Reilly said he asked for $355.5 million in compensatory damages against PNC, five times that in punitive damages and whatever jurors thought reasonable against Forever Enterprises, which was not represented in court.
A statement from Frederick Solomon, senior vice president of the PNC Financial Services Group, said, “PNC respectfully disagrees with the jury regarding the liability of its predecessor bank, Allegiant, and we intend to appeal this verdict.”
“Allegiant’s trusteeship spanned just over five years of NPS’s thirty years in business, and not the last years,” he said. He noted that NPS had “sufficient funds to cover every deposit” when Allegiant resigned, four years before NPS failed. “The record showed that federal and state bank examiners regularly reviewed Allegiant’s practices when it was trustee, while a monitor for a prior court case examined NPS’ practices during that time,” he said.
Solomon also said that all of the consumers who bought prepaid funeral services will receive those services.
NPS promised customers across the country that money from prearranged funeral contracts would be held in trust. Claims were supposed to be funded by life insurance policies payable to the trust. But federal authorities found that company officers and others spent some of the money on lavish lifestyles instead.
Beginning in the early 1990s, liabilities exceeded trust assets, the plaintiffs said, and NPS could pay for funerals only by using cash from new contracts.
More than 97,000 victims — customers, funeral homes, insurers and financial institutions — lost money, federal officials have said.
NPS executives found criminally responsible were sentenced some time ago to federal prison terms, and were ordered to pay restitution from funds presumably long gone.
The NPS owner, James “Doug” Cassity, as well as two other officers, an employee, the company lawyer and a former investment adviser, were sent to federal prison in 2013, for terms ranging from 18 months to 10 years.
Four, including Cassity, were ordered to repay $435 million in restitution.
In the civil suit, plaintiffs accused trustees, including Allegiant Bank, of negligence and breaching their fiduciary duty. The defendants were accused of allowing company officers to siphon money, failing to uncover the fraud — or Cassity’s criminal record — and failing to warn their successors of red flags.
The trustees reaped fees and the benefit of the Cassitys’ other banking business, the suit claims.
In opening statements last month, Stephen Raber, one of the lawyers representing PNC, told jurors that, “The fraud went undetected by everyone for 15 years” because the “NPS criminals” hid it.
In a pretrial brief, defense lawyers said NPS had outsourced oversight of the trust’s investments. Allegiant had “‘no duty to inquire into or participate in the performance’ of the investment advisor’s duties unless the trustee has ‘actual knowledge’ that the advisor is breaching its fiduciary duties,” they wrote.
U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber, who presided over the trial, said in a telephone interview Monday that the trial featured “some of the best professional advocacy that I’ve ever seen in a case.”