Life Insurance Payment Dispute

1,500 people are taking on the State of New York in a legal fight aimed at preventing cuts to their insurance payments

By Willard Shepard
|  Thursday, May 16, 2013  |  Updated 12:50 AM EDT
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Miami Beach resident Gina Cunningham is one of 1,500 people taking on the State of New York in a legal fight aimed at preventing cuts to their insurance payments. NBC 6's Willard Shepard reports.

Miami Beach resident Gina Cunningham is one of 1,500 people taking on the State of New York in a legal fight aimed at preventing cuts to their insurance payments. NBC 6's Willard Shepard reports.

Miami Beach resident Gina Cunningham suffered the terrible accident almost 30 years ago and says she has never recovered.

Her leg was almost useless after she was hit while riding her bike in Manhattan in 1984.

“My right leg was completely run over by the cement truck. They admitted responsibility and we came to a settlement out of court,” she said.

Cunningham got a settlement and invested the funds with an insurance company. She thought it was a sure thing. Each month the checks would help her pay her bills. Now, she and others say they’re on the verge of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“The accident changed my life. I've been in pain for almost 30 years. I would have never wished that upon myself or anybody else,” she said.

Cunningham says she retired from teaching early due to the pain. She thought the monthly payments of $4,400 from the settlement would always be there.

“I had a bit of comfort in the fact that I would be able to take care of my medical needs especially as I got older,” she said.

But now Cunningham said her future isn’t so colorful. She’s heading for a knee replacement and says those monthly checks could be cut in half.

“I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen when the cuts come. The cuts might come next month,” she said.

She is one of 1,500 people taking on the State of New York in a legal fight aimed at preventing the cuts. Many people who were injured years ago gave huge amounts to ELNY – the Executive Life Insurance Company of New York – and were put into annuities that would provide monthly payments. Since ELNY was based in New York, the state’s insurance department there took over ELNY when it ran into financial trouble two decades ago. Now the injured people claim the state didn’t protect their money.

“We’re all disabled,” said Broward resident Tim Culhane.

He is also part of the legal action. He was an iron worker who fell seven floors in lower Manhattan back in the 1980s.

“Some of us are burn victims. Some in wheelchairs for life. What I don’t understand is why we aren’t protected for life. It’s like we have to relive this accident all over again,” he said.

The victims’ legal filings, in the New York State Court of Appeals, claim the injured stand to lose $920 million in benefits. Some could see a 66 percent cut in their monthly payments. They claim in the legal paperwork that the New York Insurance Department “… took a solvent company in 1991 ... rendered it insolvent over the next two decades."

The State of New York told Team 6 Investigators that after 20 years, the time has come to settle the books on ELNY and liquidate. Officials with the state Department of Insurance say they are doing all they can to help the injured. Officials say that of the thousands of people who invested, just 16 percent won’t get what was promised.

Culhane calls that unfair.

“It was guaranteed and insured-- that’s what I was told,” he said.

But New York Department of Insurance said: “Simply put, Executive Life does not have enough assets to meet all its obligations...we have devised a plan that will maximize payments and ensure the fairest possible outcome for everyone.”

New York is asking Florida and other states where injured victims live, to help them financially, but Florida only provides financial help to residents who were hurt in the state.

Attorney Tom Tew at Tew-Cardenas Law told Team 6 Investigators: ” There’s a debate as to whether the assets were properly administered by the receiver. “

Tew is an expert in legal finance claims and not involved in the case. He was asked for his take on the claims of those who say it’s unfair to now get their payments reduced.

“What’s unusual is the policy holders are not made whole. That’s the mission of the guarantee fund, in order to protect policy holders of a failed company. That’s exactly what happened here,” Tew said.

Cunningham is worried about her future.

“I’m not sure I can remain in my house and live the way I have been living, which is modest,” she said.

Culhane hopes others learn from his financial plight.

“I wouldn’t have put all my eggs in one basket. I trusted the system and the system failed me,” he said.

Tew says people should pick wisely if they come into a legal settlement.

“You’re giving money up front in promise for money later. That means the person had better invest it very carefully,” he said.

The New York officials who came up with the payout plan have thus far been victorious in court, and their legal fight is essentially over unless they can convince judges to take another look.

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