Tuesday, August 21, 2012

As a Knoxville personal injury attorney, I am gratified to see the public outrage (see comments below statement) at Progressive Insurance over its underinsured motorist denial of liability against its own policyholder in the auto accident death of Katie Fisher two years ago. As pleased as I am to see the public finally understand how auto insurance companies operate, the sad truth is that Progressive's actions in the Fisher case are simply par for the course.

Here's the scenario: it was an intersection accident, so the question was whether Katie Fisher ran the red light or whether the defendant ran the red light. There were witnesses who said that Katie ran the red light. I have told clients for years that an insurance company will deny liability and refuse to pay a claim if there is any hint that the claimant was at fault. That's why Progressive refused to accept the claim.

Now, the way insurance works is like this: if the at-fault driver [the defendant] has relatively little liability coverage, then the liability insurance company -- in this case Nationwide -- will often offer its policy limits -- in this case a mere $25,000 -- because Nationwide sees a real danger of a jury verdict over $25,000, AND Nationwide also has a duty to protect its own insured, the defendant. By offering the policy limits, Nationwide has done everything it can do contractually to protect its own insured, the defendant. Offering policy limits gets Nationwide off the hook for being sued on a bad faith breach of contract case. Nationwide doesn't casre about the Fishers, any more than Progressive does. They don't even much care about their own policyholder who they are supposed to be protecting. They're offering the money to try to cover their own corporate posterior. That's why Nationwide offered the $25,000 policy limits

In general, an offer of policy limits will trigger the uninsured motorist coverage [UIM]. At that point, Progressive, which had $100,000 in UIM coverage, had a maximum exposure of the amount over the liability offer and its own limits: $75,000. Legally, however, if Progressive thinks that Katie Fisher had fault in the wreck, then it can deny liability and force a jury trial. Which is exactly what Progressive did. (Note: I find Progressive's actions contemptible, too. it's just that this happens all the time; it's routine.) To Progressive -- and any other insurance company, for that matter -- it's a business decision, and if they determine that they can get away with paying less, or nothing, then that is just what they will try to do.

Well, they gambled and they lost. The jury hit the defendant for $760,000. Nationwide has probably already paid its $25,000. Progressive is definitely on the hook for at least another $75,000. What the parties are negotiating about now is the additional jury verdict of $660,000. I'm sure the Fishers are contending that Progressive should pay the entire $760,000, less Nationwide's $25,000: $735,000. Progressive is trying to get the Fishers to take less, and is probably threatening to appeal the case if the Fishers don't cave. An appeal is likely to cost another year of waiting, with a very real chance the verdict will be reversed and sent back for an entirely new trial.

A couple of comments. First, if members of the public are outraged, do something about it. Elect legislators, congressmen and senators that will prtect the rights of innocent victoms, instead of trampling all over them. Serve on juries and award fair verdicts to injured personal injury victims.

Anybody notice that the Baltimore City Circuit Court jury thought Katie Fisher's life was only worth $760,000? I ought not to be surprised; Big Insurance and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been working for years -- decades -- to poison the minds of potential jurors. That's you, and everyone you know. If you want to know all about the conspiracy that's being carried out under all our noses, see Hot Coffee. Here's the trailer:

Also, go to your state government and insist on vigorous enforcement of your state's insurance laws. It's an open secret that various states' insurance commissioners are often retired insurance executives. They have no inclination to help injured victims of negligence. At the same time they have every reason, based on a lifetime's worth of biases, to favor the insurance industry. Because there is no federal regulation of the insurance industry, it's up to each state to police the insurance companies doing business in that particular state. If your governor is not protecting your interests by appointing qualified and objective commissioners, get a new governor.

Let's be very clear here: Big Insurance and the U.S. Chamber are laughing all the way to the bank at how they are manipulating the public into voting for the very representatives that are taking away their rights. Maybe this Fisher case will get some people thinking about that.