Insurance companies are making it tougher and tougher to collect medical costs incurred due to minor car crashes. According to a recent 18-month investigation conducted by CNN, you could be in the fight of your life if you're trying to get an auto insurance company to pay medical costs you incur due to an auto accident, even though the accident was not your fault.
The article states that this type of "insurance hardball" particularly happens in relatively minor accidents such as fender benders where there is no injury that may be seen by the naked eye or established with an X-ray.
This insurance-company's- "play-tough" trend is apparently a recent one, a strategy adopted and religiously enforced by the nation's two largest insurance companies, State farm and Allstate. According to the CNN investigation, the result of such a strategy has been extremely profitable for the insurance companies, but has hurt consumers significantly. People end up getting dragged through the court system over fender bender claims, but no one sees any benefit such as reduced premiums. In fact, the dirty little secret of the insurance industry for the last 15 years has been this - they're paying out much less for minor auto accidents, their profits are soaring as are your premiums. Of course, for them, it's a winning formula.
CNN's investigative team reportedly reviewed more than 6,000 company documents and court records and conducted interviews with numerous people including former insurance company insiders, accident victims and other experts. This is what they learned. If you challenge an insurer after a car accident and refuse to accept what the insurance company offers you, even if you are insulted by it - you will be left with little option but to go to court and be dragged through a complex, expensive and slow system.
Why is it that fighting an insurance company is not beneficial to a consumer? Because it takes up so much time and so much money. You can't really turn to a personal injury lawyer because the experienced ones refuse to take on these cases. They know that the payoff for their client and the law firm is to low to make it worth taking up the cause. The law firm makes no money and the client is dissatisfied with the recovery the law firm got for them. It is a now win situation for the lawyers. It is simply not worth it for them to be involved.
Insurance company employees at Allstate were reportedly instructed to get rid of claims quickly by offering a pittance to accident victims - in some cases, amounts as low as $50. The injured person could take it or leave it or sue. And then the insurance companies complain about the volume of lawsuits.
CNN talked to two victims who experience this first-hand. Roxanne Martinez of Santa Fe suffered neck and back injuries when she was sideswiped by a driver insured by Allstate. After three years of back-and-forth, the company offered her $15,000, barely half of what she needed to cover lost income and pay medical bills. She took it to court and four years after the accident, a jury awarded her $167,000 plus interest.
But an Indiana woman, Ann Taylor, was not so lucky. Taylor suffered a herniated disc and muscle tears after she was rear-ended by a State Farm insured. Her bills and lost wages totaled nearly $15,000. But how much did State Farm offer her? $2,000. She was insulted and she sued, but the jury returned with an award of only $1,500 because the insurance company's attorney showed them an enlarged picture of Taylor's car after the accident, in which the vehicle had a small dent. So jurors said they thought Taylor was only trying to get more money out of the insurance company.
Experts say this strategy was devised to boost profit for the insurance companies in the mid-1990s with the help of a consultant. Those documents obtained by CNN recommend that insurance companies put on their boxing gloves when it comes to soft-tissue injuries in minor crashes. Their strategy outlines three D's - denying a claim, delaying settlement of a claim and defending against the claim in court. Other experts say that this strategy helped insurance companies weed out so-called victim's attorneys "who make a living off auto accident victims." They argue that lawyers are upset about insurance companies playing hardball with the public because they fear that "the gravy train is over." The insurance companies did not mention how their tactics were unfair to the innocent auto accident victim; they just blamed everything on the personal injury attorneys.
The party that really suffers in a minor injury crash is the average driver, the guy who is not ready financially to spend thousands at a given time to handle medical expenses for issues such as chiropractic work, which is not covered under many health plans or to be off work for a week or more. It is the average consumer who suffers as a result of this profit-mongering strategy adopted by insurance companies. It is these companies that stand to profit millions by not paying what is due to innocent, injured auto accident victims and then worsening the situation by increasing premiums.
The truth is that a minor car accident can cause a significant injury. This is especially so to seniors and people with preexisting conditions... We've had clients who suffered severe back injuries in a moderate rear-end accidents. Yes, many of them were elderly but aren't they entitled to safe passage on our highways? Aren't they entitled to compensation for the damage done, regardless of their age? Yes, many of the others are people with preexisting conditions, especially "degenerative disc disease", a medical term for the wearing out of your spin through age.
We have seen people in the forties who are as fit as can be get into a small or moderate rear end collision and have serous neck and back issues. The insurance company claims it is a preexisting condition, "degenerative disc disease" and they refuse to pay. In these cases it is true that the "degenerative disc disease" was present before the accident. What wasn't there before the accident was the pain and discomfort. The "degenerative disc disease" was asymptomatic; meaning it wasn't hurting or causing any problems. The accident caused the degenerative disc disease - to become symptomatic, in other words, painful and in some cases debilitating.
Just because you are over 40 years-old does not make you fair game for a spinal injury or for an insurance company rip-off.
There are some steps you could take to make sure you are protected or covered if you get involved in an auto accident - major or minor. The first step, if you are able to do so after an accident, is to get insurance information, name and address of the parties involved in the crash and any witnesses. Also, take as many pictures as possible of the site even if it's on your cell phone. Finally, get a thorough check-up. Remember that symptoms could surface after several days up to a year or more.
We have recommended to a significant number of people to just take the negligent driver to small claims court. Bypass the insurance company altogether. Bring the traffic collision report and your medical records to court along with any witnesses you have to your accident and the difficulties you have suffered since and let a judge decide. The negligent driver's insurance company will pay the judgment and neither of the parties can be represented by an attorney.
Small claims court is quick and easy. It is much quicker than haggling with an insurance adjuster for months. The people who we have assisting in their preparation for their small claims court hearing have generally done very well compared to the insurance company offer. And the insurance company hates it.
John Bisnar is a partner at Newport Beach Personal Injury Law Firm Bisnar Chase. The Bisnar Chase law firm has dedicated their practice to victims of serious injuries due to defective products, negligence and malpractice.