Millions awarded to local man

August 20, 2002 11:00 pm

By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

In a hot and steamy jury room in Ukiah last week, 12 jurors decided a Crescent City insurance broker was abused by a nationwide insurance company.

Crescent City's John Wier and Fort Bragg broker Richard Pyorre were awarded $12.6 million last week when the jury decided the pair's countersuit against State Farm Insurance was justified.

"I'm just happy to get my reputation vindicated," Wier said yesterday when asked about his $3.25 million share of the award. "I'm thankful the jury saw it our way, and I didn't have to pay them any money."

State Farm sued Wier and Pyorre in federal court in 1999, accusing the pair of stealing the company's business through "economic espionage," Wier said. Although the federal suit in San Francisco was quickly dismissed, the company launched a state suit in Ukiah in February 2000. Wier and Pyorre countersued for breach of contract and sought compensation for lost commissions and emotional distress.

"I wouldn't wish on anybody to go through the legal system like we did," Wier said. "Especially when you go up against an 800-pound gorilla, with 800 lawyers, because the little guy doesn't always win."

The bad blood began in the late 1990s. Wier, who worked as an independent agent for State Farm for 13 years, said he and several other business owners had a falling out with the insurance company when it decided to change its agent contracts.

"The old contracts were in place since 1966. They decided to do away with the old contracts and came out with a new contract in 1997," Wier said. "The new contract basically made everybody an employee of the company, which wasn't what we wanted."

Wier said he and other brokers were eventually released by State Farm in 1999 in a dispute over the new agent contract.

"They terminated me because I signed my name (on insurance contracts) along with the representation of my rights," Wier said. "They terminated five of us at that time."

Pyorre, who worked for State Farm for 27 years, was terminated because he refused to attend an ethics class which the contract made mandatory.

Wier and Pyorre began working as independent agents for another firm and trouble soon followed.

"Many of my customers stayed with me and went with Mercury Insurance, who I brokered with," Wier said. "About 250 folks that came to me were from State Farm."

According to court documents, State Farm argued Wier and Pyorre used a company-owned list and "trade secrets" to build their customer base.

Spokespeople from State Farm's Sacramento regional office, which handled the suit, did not immediately return telephone calls yesterday.

In a 10-2 decision, the Ukiah jury determined State Farm was not the exclusive owner of information about policyholders.

"That jury sat in that hot jury room, without air conditioning, for six and a-half weeks," Wier said. "I really felt sorry for them. Now, I am very appreciative they saw it our way and gave us our reputations back."

Judge Richard Henderson is scheduled to review, on Oct. 11, the amount of damages awarded. Wier said he hopes the jury's decision is not overruled.

"If the judge was only going to allow a certain amount on damages, then he should have explained that to the jury initially," said Wier. "I really don't know where it's going to go from here. It would be nice to get the money to pay off the lawyer fees and taxes, but I expect it to go on for some time."