A California grandmother who lost her life savings in a real estate investment scam offered by an insurance agent was awarded more than $15 million Wednesday in a lawsuit against MetLife and two subsidiaries, attorneys said.
Christine Ramirez, 75, was awarded the punitive damages by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury that found the companies and a former MetLife partner aided in both deceit and securities violations, along with counts of negligence and financial elder abuse.
"I am so grateful to the jurors for seeing through MetLife's finger-pointing argument that they weren't responsible for the loss of my retirement savings," Ramirez said in a statement issued by her lawyers.
Ramirez was the first of 98 people who have sued after being bilked in a $200 million real estate fund scheme run by convicted felon Bruce Friedman, who died in a French jail while waiting to be returned to the U.S. to face federal criminal charges.
Jurors found MetLife allowed Tony Russon, a former managing partner, to promote Friedman's fund during insurance sales meetings.
Ramirez, a retired mortgage processor, had sunk $280,000 into Friedman's Diversified Lending Group that guaranteed 12 percent returns.
Federal authorities said DLG was a classic Ponzi scheme, with some early investors being repaid, but most ending up with nothing as Friedman fueled a lavish lifestyle and then left for Europe when the Securities and Exchange Commission sued him.
"MetLife was aware that the branch office run by Tony Russon was not following MetLife's own policies and procedures, and ... failed to act to correct this dangerous behavior," attorney Thomas Foley said. "If they had, Ms. Ramirez and hundreds of others like her would not have been victimized by this investment fraud."
A MetLife spokesman said the company was disappointed with the outcome and expected to appeal.
The jury awarded punitive damages of $10 million from MetLife Inc., $2.5 million from New England Securities, $2.5 million from New England Life Insurance Co., and $330,000 from Russon. It also awarded nearly $240,000 in compensatory damages.