Snake Killer

Page 8 of 14

In the fifth case -- Singh v. State Farm in Los Angeles, which led to the incriminating documents being released -- the company paid a $30 million settlement.

When Kim Zilisch embarked on her decadelong dispute with State Farm, she had youth on her side. Betty Olson did not.

In the Maricopa County Superior Court trial that resulted from Olson's dispute with State Farm, former State Farm employee Ina De Long revealed that the insurance company banks on the fact that older folks won't have the resources, the strength or, frankly, the years to invest in a protracted fight against State Farm.

De Long was asked what claims adjusters were told to tell unhappy clients who threatened to get a lawyer.

"What I was trained was to tell them to go ahead and get one, we had more money than they did," she said, later explaining: "We knew that the chances were really, really great that we would win, because we had a good idea of which people to push into litigation . . . the weakest of the herd."

De Long said several types of people fit this description, including senior citizens, women (who might be unfamiliar with auto or home repair standards) or anyone who might not make a favorable impression in front of a jury.

If, in fact, State Farm believed Olson was one of those weaklings, it was wrong. On paper, she would appear to fit into the herd. When her newly leased 1993 Cadillac was severely smashed in a Phoenix accident, Olson was 68 years old and caring for a handicapped husband and a disabled grown daughter. Her real estate business had provided minimal income to her in the two years since relocating to Arizona because of her caretaker duties. She had no experience in litigation or insurance claims.

But Olson was anything but a little old lady too inexperienced, poor or busy to question the way State Farm handled her claim. Even today, a few weeks shy of her 75th birthday, she looks many years younger. And she still displays the passion that helped her win a $6.7 million payoff from State Farm.

Instead of being worn down as her dispute with State Farm dragged on for years, she says, "I kept getting angrier about it."

She was determined to teach State Farm a lesson.

"I could have lost everything," she says. "But I wasn't afraid of that. I was more concerned about people being treated right."

Jurors in her 1998 bad-faith trial in Maricopa County Superior Court determined that Olson hadn't been treated right at all. They awarded her $1 million from State Farm in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages (although a judge later cut the $1 million award in half).

This summer, she received a $6.7 million check (which included interest and attorneys' fees awarded) just months after an Arizona Court of Appeals decision affirmed the jury's award.

In March, the court wrote that the substantial evidence of State Farm's questionable claims practices was enough to lead a jury to decide they were the product of an "evil mind" (one of the tests of conduct warranting punitive damages). In addition, the appellate panel said evidence of State Farm's conduct in other states was rightly admitted into evidence because it demonstrated "State Farm's improper motive of indiscriminately manipulating claims to increase profits."

The verdict, and the ultimate payout, was a stunning Arizona victory against State Farm, particularly because it involved only damaged property, not loss of life or serious injury, for which damages are generally higher.

Indeed, Olson was not even in her car in the early morning hours of September 26, 1993, when a drunken driver ran a red light and slammed into the Cadillac at 32nd Street and McDowell Road. Her 33-year-old son, Michael, was driving.

But the Cadillac, a $42,000 vehicle Olson had leased to drive around her real estate clients, was in bad shape. At her trial, one expert testified that the car "clearly looked like it was in a train wreck." He noted that the front end and pieces of the engine "had actually been sheared off." Olson testified that when she saw the Cadillac, it was "unrecognizable."

Although Olson herself was not injured in the wreck, the way she was treated by her own insurance company was a nightmare all its own.

According to trial testimony, a tow-truck driver, of all people, determined the morning of the wreck that the car was repairable, rather than a total loss. He took it to one of State Farm's preferred repair facilities, one which Olson's attorneys argued had a standard agreement to keep the insured out of the loop when it came to deciding on repairs.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin