A jury deliberated 3 1/2 hours yesterday before clearing real estatebroker Gary Hart of personal responsibility for failing to pay health insurance for a former employee who lost coverage and became serously ill.
After hearing three days of testimony last week, the jury instead found Hart's company, Gary Hart and Associates Ltd., liable and awarded $275,000 in damages to defendant Robin Stallings.
Stallings and Karen Kilheffer, who worked as a Realtor with Stallings at a company Stallings later sold to Hart, charged the Realtor with negligence and breach of contract.
The defendants claimed thatwhen Hart purchased Robin Stallings and Associates in August 1984, he agreed to pay insurance premiums for Stallings, who stayed on as anemployee.
When Stallings left Hart's agency, both agreed he wouldmake monthly payments on her company, deduct the amount owed for insurance and pay that directly to Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
When his company fell behind on the insurance premium in 1989, the insurer dropped Stallings' policy.
Stallings, meanwhile, had been receiving monthly payments from Hart and Associates, less the amount deducted forinsurance. She discovered her lack of insurance two months later when she required surgery.
In closing arguments yesterday before Judge Warren B. Duckett, Stallings' attorney, Jerome May, painted Hart asirresponsible and careless. He blamed Hart personally for Stallings'loss of coverage and inability to get re-insured.
"All she's everworked for is lost," said May, who said Stallings' hospital bills have piled up to $65,000. "These people relied upon Gary Hart to see that the insurance was paid and he failed, and he's unwilling to stand up and take responsibility."
Though Hart gave his bookkeeper, Darlene Bull, the job of making payments, May said Bull's testimony showed she was overworked, in part because Hart asked her to handle personal as well as business matters.
Hart "is the one who created the situation where that bill wasn't paid and he is the one who should be responsible. The freedom to go out and earn money does not give you the liberty to breach your contract and be careless with other people's lives," he said.
Alan J. Hyatt, attorney for Hart, countered that the company, not Hart himself, entered into the original sales contract to purchase Stallings' company.
Hart continued paying Stallings premiums after she left the company only as a favor to Stallings, he said.
"The promise was to pay a certain sum of money every month," but when Stallings left Hart and Associates, Hart had no obligation to pay health insurance, Hyatt said.
"A bookkeeper didn't pay abill. To read into it a duty or responsibility on the part of the president of a corporation is nothing more than an attempt to be creative," he said.
"Aren't they trying to find somebody with deep pockets?"
Last January, Hart closed the company that beared his name and formed an agency affiliated with Coldwell Banker. Since then, Gary Hart and Associates Limited has become inactive.
In an unrelated case, Hart was acquitted of rape after a highly publicized trial last summer.