A Jackson County jury has ordered a debt collection agency to cough up nearly $83 million to a woman it mistakenly pursued to collect a credit card debt of little more than $1,000.
The jury found Portfolio Recovery Associates LLC guilty of violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, for which it will pay $250,000 in damages, as well as maliciously prosecuting the woman, Maria Guadalupe Mejia, over the debt that did not belong to her. For the malicious prosecution, the jury awarded Mejia $82,990,000 in punitive damages.
PRA Group Inc., which owns Portfolio Recovery Associates, sent an email statement to Credit.com:
“This outlandish verdict defies all common sense,” wrote spokesman Michael McKeon. “We hope and expect the judge will set aside this inappropriate award, and we plan to file motions to make that request formally in the near term. Any fair reading of the facts of this case makes plain that a verdict of this size is not justice by any means, and cannot stand.”
Portfolio Recovery, one of the nation’s largest debt buyers, sued Mejia in February 2013 over the credit card debt, though the actual debtor turned out to be a man in Kansas City, Kansas, with a name similar to Mejia’s. The company pursued Mejia for the debt for 15 months after she first received notice of the lawsuit. In a written statement to KCUR, Mejia said, “The lawsuit terrified me.”
Fear is a common consumer response to debt collectors, whether the debt is legitimate or not. The first thing consumers should do when they hear from a debt collector is ask the collector to validate the debt in writing — it’s crucial to know your debt collection rights as a consumer, so you don’t end up paying a debt you don’t owe or letting the collection account unnecessarily damage your credit standing.
If you’re unsure of how to approach a debt collection situation, you may want to consult a consumer law attorney, who may review your case for free, to help you understand whether the collector is violating your rights.