LAS VEGAS—A Nevada jury ordered the state's largest health management organization to pay $500 million in punitive damages to three plaintiffs in a civil negligence lawsuit stemming from a Las Vegas hepatitis outbreak. Two companies—both subsidiaries of UnitedHealth Group—signed a low-bid contract with the physician who ran the clinic where the outbreak started, despite warnings that he sped through procedures and pinched pennies at his clinics so much that patients were at risk of contracting blood-borne diseases, attorneys for those suing the companies argued. They had sought almost $2.5 billion, telling the jury that a record amount would show health corporations they couldn't put profits ahead of patient safety. The jury instead assessed a $270 million punishment from Health Plan of Nevada and $230 million from parent company Sierra Health Services. The smaller award wasn't a disappointment, said Robert Eglet, attorney for two of the plaintiffs, Bonnie and Carl Brunson, both in their 70s. “The jury sent a strong message not only to HPN and Sierra Health, but to every HMO and health insurance company in this country,” Eglet said. The companies promised to appeal and warned the result could drive up health insurance rates if it stands. “The number announced today ... represents fantasy damages, not punitive damages,” company spokesman Tyler Mason said in a statement. “The only numbers that matter here are the higher insurance premiums that Nevadans may pay if health plans are held liable for the criminal conduct of independent doctors.” The punitive damages awarded April 9 were in addition to $24 million in compensatory damages awarded the previous week.