A case that reached a resolution last week in Maryland offers a cautionary tale about dealing with insurance companies, as well as a lesson in the important role media sometimes play in helping victims obtain justice.
According to both Yahoo! News and CNN the story begins in June 2010 when a 24-year-old Maryland woman died in a car accident caused by another driver’s failure to stop at a red light. The driver who caused the crash was either uninsured or underinsured (media accounts vary on this point), but that ought not to have been a problem, since the victim carried uninsured motorist’s coverage as part of her auto insurance package with Progressive, one of the country’s best known car insurance companies.
Under Maryland law a trial was required to establish responsibility for the crash. To the fury of the victim’s family, Progressive’s attorneys helped the driver who caused the crash throughout the proceeding in an effort to establish that the victim was partly at fault – a circumstance that would have allowed the company to refuse to pay on its policy. The company has issued a statement pointing out that it did not formally represent the defendant, but the victim’s brother, quoted by Yahoo! News, said that the insurer’s lawyers repeatedly conferred with and assisted the defendant during the trial. They also made a closing statement claiming that his sister was at fault for the accident. “I am comfortable characterizing this as a legal defense,” he wrote last week, according to Yahoo! News.
In other words: Progressive was willing to go to court, and to help a negligent driver who was not their client in his legal defense against their own customer as a way of getting out of paying that customer’s claim. In the end, the jury ruled for the family, but the resulting firestorm of criticism has left Progressive – deservedly so – with bigger problems. Its Facebook page and other social media presences have been inundated with hostile comments. Numerous articles have appeared in the national press, and the insurance company’s attempts to explain everything away by resorting to narrow legalisms has done far more harm than good.
From an Oregon personal injury attorney’s perspective, one can take heart from the fact that this case turned out as it should, and that in addition to paying the claim it owed via the victim’s insurance policy Progressive has now settled with the victim’s family for an undisclosed sum.
The entire episode is a reminder of the crucial role that courts and the law play in enforcing contracts, and guaranteeing that large companies cannot avoid paying their obligations. Any caring person, however, would agree that the entire episode has been longer and more painful, draining and stressful than it should have been for the victim’s family. Progressive only did the right thing as the result of a combination of legal force and public shaming. That is not the way insurance is supposed to work. The fact that, far too often, this is the way it does work is a sad reminder of the important role lawyers and our courts must play in ensuring that large companies honor their obligations.
Yahoo! News/Good Morning America: Family of woman killed in crash accuses insurer of calling witness against her