Snake Killer

Page 10 of 14

"Well, some may characterize it as a competition. It was actually an awareness campaign," he replied.

Later, Adcock was confronted with a document with his name on it that read "Good luck on the contest and keep up the great work!" Another document congratulated an estimator that won the "contest," noting he "finished with a whopping 33.1 percent" of used parts. Still, Adcock says he didn't know that there was a contest and denied it was national in scope. "It was an awareness campaign."

In another deposition given in a California case, a State Farm claims specialist gave new meaning to the word "evasive."

During tedious questioning recounted in an appellate court ruling, Toni Hotzel didn't recognize her own signature on two State Farm documents or her voice in a two-party telephone conversation in which she identified herself at the outside of the phone call.

She wouldn't say the signature was hers.

"I write my name a lot of different ways," argued Hotzel.

Asked to identify the cursive name above the typed words "Toni Hotzel," she answered, "I'm not sure." Pressed to try to read it, she said, "Hmmm, I don't know. Could be many things." Later, she claimed the last word could be "hotel," as in "Toni Hotel."

After listening to the tape, she gave vague answers to a series of questions, then said she couldn't say if it was her voice. "I don't know how I sound to other people. I don't know."

Plaintiffs attorneys who have sued State Farm claim this is no accident. In various trials, including the Olson trial and the Campbell case in Utah, several witnesses -- usually former State Farm employees -- have revealed orders to destroy evidence, withhold paperwork requested in litigation, alter claim files or forge documents to suit State Farm's purposes and be as evasive as possible when called to testify.

One former claims specialist, Amy Zuniga, testified in a California case that she was instructed "not to provide certain relevant information at my depositions" and was coached "on how to give up as little information as possible" while under oath. Samantha Bird, another past State Farm employee, provided evidence at the Campbell and Olson trials about the firm's orders in 1990 to destroy all memos, manuals and documents that "could be asked for in bad-faith suits." Another State Farm 1995 memo asked all its outside attorneys to destroy or return any potentially damaging documents.

Other former employees have testified about their practice of rewriting entries in claims files and taking out documents that wouldn't help State Farm's case. De Long told the Olson jury she had done all this, but soon learned to build a file with this goal in mind: "You would only put in the right comments and the right documents and the right self-serving memos to start with."

The judge who upheld the Campbell verdict, William Bohling, called these practices the final step of State Farm's fraudulent scheme. He noted that few victims will even realize they've been wronged, that fewer still will sue, a small fraction of those will be able to "weather the years of litigation needed to reach trial." Those who do, Bohling says, will have a tough time arguing against the "honest mistake" defense, in light of State Farm's "body of evidence that has been systematically sanitized, padded, purged, concealed, destroyed or rehearsed."

State Farm denies it asked anyone to destroy records; in fact, it says it has a formal records retention policy to make sure case files are complete.

Cal Thur and others would be hard-pressed to build their cases without the documents they've been able to flush out and the former employees who have stepped forward to expose policies they say they couldn't support.

During trial, State Farm usually tries to undermine the credibility or relevance of these witnesses.

At the front of this pack of former employees is De Long, who Thur calls "a true hero."

De Long, 57, quit State Farm in August 1990, saying she couldn't stay and participate in the unethical things she was being asked to do as disaster supervisor after the Loma Prieta earthquake. She says the company's practice of underpaying claims after the Bay Area earthquake in 1989 took on a dangerous meaning.

"It isn't about dollars anymore, it's about sliding off a hill. I mean, we left people in unsafe homes," she says.

Sitting in her mobile home in Santa Rosa, California, De Long, a mother and grandmother who has been honored by the California Legislature and a consumers attorney group for her work, doesn't look like a rebel. And the videotape she begins playing doesn't seem like anything incendiary.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin