A four-year legal saga, which pitted hundreds of thousands of older Americans against an insurance giant from Golden Valley, has come to a quiet -- and seemingly contradictory -- end.

A federal jury ruled late Monday that Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America used deceptive practices in selling a certain type of investment product known as an equity-indexed annuity, which is linked to the stock market.

But in a surprising twist, the 11-person jury awarded no damages to the estimated 340,000 people nationwide who bought the annuities earlier this decade, noting that no one was directly harmed from the deceptive sales practices.

The verdict culminates a prolonged legal battle between Allianz Life and consumers who claimed the company enticed them into buying annuities with false promises of bonuses that never materialized.

For years, the case cast a dark cloud over Allianz Life and other major insurance companies that sell these annuities. The companies were forced to defend their reputations -- and pay out millions -- as an onslaught of attorneys and state regulators said they were glossing over the complex nature of the products and locking older people into contracts from which they may not live long enough to fully benefit. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson was among those who went after the company for sale of the products.

Now, the verdict puts an end to the legal squabbling but raises new questions about the lengths to which companies can go in marketing sophisticated financial products. In this case, the jury appeared to agree with one of Allianz Life's arguments during the three-week trial: People who bought the annuities fared better than if they had put their money in the moribund stock market.

The implication, some legal experts argued, is that financial companies can deceive customers but not be penalized if the products themselves do not hurt people's pocketbooks.

"Does this mean a company can be dishonest and, because of an external event, get off scot-free?" Akshay Rao, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs, said in an interview Tuesday. "Had the [stock] market not tanked, would Allianz have been culpable?"

Allianz Life, a unit of Germany's Allianz SE, has strongly disputed allegations that its sales practices were deceptive and declared victory Tuesday. "We are very pleased that the jury concluded that no harm came to our policyholders," said Gary Bhojwani, president and chief executive officer of Allianz Life.

The lead plaintiff in the case was Linda Mooney, a 65-year-old retired nurse from Kansas who said she invested $216,189 in an Allianz annuity on the promise that she would receive an up-front 10 percent bonus of about $21,600. Mooney said she never received the bonus; and she incurred an $18,000 surrender charge for cashing out of a previous annuity from TransAmerica.

The original lawsuit, filed in 2006, alleged buyers of the annuities had to pay surrender charges of 12.5 percent of the amount invested if they did not lock up their money for 15 years or longer, according to the complaint. Many buyers of the annuities were older.

Karl Cambronne, a Minneapolis attorney who represented the plaintiffs in the class action case, said he was "absolutely not happy" with the jury's decision not to award damages in the case. He suspects the jurors may have been influenced by the argument that holders of Allianz Life annuities might have done worse in the stock market.

"One of the major themes at trial was, 'Gee, aren't these annuity purchasers smart? Instead of suffering the 30 to 40 percent downturn [in the stock market], they were in annuities,'" Cambronne said.

The lawsuit was just the latest in a string of court cases involving Allianz Life and its annuities.

In February 2008, Allianz Life paid $10 million to settle charges that it sold unsuitable annuities to thousands of senior citizens in California. And two years ago, in a settlement with Swanson, Allianz Life agreed to return money to about 7,000 senior citizens who had purchased annuities since 2001.

In both cases, Allianz Life agreed to strengthen the way it reviews annuity applications, and insurance industry experts say the company is now a leader in disclosing the risks of annuities to its customers.

"Allianz has been a problem child in the past," said Sheryl Moore, president and chief executive of AnnuitySpecs.com, a website that tracks the index annuity market. "The brochures they used to explain these products were not written in plain language. ... But they really have cleaned up their act -- to the point where this is no longer an issue."

The litigation does not appear to have dampened sales of Allianz's indexed annuities. The company posted sales of nearly $1.5 billion in the second quarter, up 40 percent from the same period a year ago, according to AnnuitySpecs.com. Allianz Life is the second-largest seller of indexed annuities in the nation with a 17 percent market share.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308