Snake Killer

Page 9 of 14

Olson said she began to get suspicious about two months after the wreck. No one had contacted her about the vehicle or her coverage. She or her husband always had to initiate contact. And then what she got was the runaround. Estimates for repair and the time needed to fix the car kept changing. She was told the car would take six to eight weeks, then seven months, to fix. She was told a critical, expensive part would take six months to obtain, then just a matter of weeks. Court records show the repair job ended up taking seven months and costing $31,000.

Meanwhile, evidence showed, she and her husband were practically begging State Farm to total the car. This would have paid them $45,000, enough to reimburse the leasing company for the car while leaving enough to apply toward a new vehicle. It also would have triggered something called gap insurance, which would have limited her exposure to the General Motors Acceptance Corporation, the agency that financed her lease, to just her $500 policy deductible. Instead, GMAC repossessed the car, sold it at auction and charged her for the difference between its original value and its auction price, plus interest and attorneys' fees, an amount totaling about $20,000.

While her car was still in the shop, Olson was expected to continue to pay her insurance premiums and lease payments on a car she hadn't seen for months. She was continuing to care for her disabled family members. She used a rental car provided by the at-fault driver's insurance company for six months, then was without a vehicle for another six months.

Unable to work as a real estate agent, she and her husband were living largely on social security checks.

In 1996, Olson was referred to Cal Thur.

At trial two years later, after Olson rejected a $10,000 settlement offer requiring her to give up her bad-faith allegations, Thur and his co-counsel were able to prove that what happened to Olson was not an aberration. Jurors were shown a video in which a State Farm auto claims attorney recounted a story of one policyholder's car being in a body shop for five years. And they heard a State Farm official testify that five years was not an unreasonable length of time for a car to be in the shop. He also said the length of time needed to repair a car was not a factor to be used in determining whether to total it.

The jury heard about State Farm's goal of increasing claims profit. It learned about the practice of promoting claims handlers who could cut their average paid claims or who could meet set percentages of things like after-market parts, which Olson's attorneys pointedly refer to as "salvage" or "junkyard" parts. It heard that factoring those cheaper parts into an estimate would drive a repair bill down, so that State Farm could avoid the cost of totaling a vehicle.

At trial, and during subsequent appeals and cross appeals, State Farm argued it had treated Olson fairly. It discounted as unrelated or unreliable reports of the company intentionally mistreating its clients. It said the car was repairable.

Through it all, Olson persevered.

She says when she heard from the witness stand that State Farm would willingly litigate against its own policyholders if the company thought the clients were the "weakest of the herd," "I was just floored. . . . I thought, 'Well somebody should stand up and be counted.'"

Even when faced with tangible evidence that the company has employed practices that are unfair to its own customers, State Farm representatives deny any wrongdoing. During trials, the insurance company's witnesses seem baffled by State Farm directives they claim never to have seen. While they verify that, sure, those appear to be official documents dictating a certain practice -- say, requiring a percentage of each claim to be composed of salvage -- they testify they've never seen anything like that particular policy manual, document or memo.

Some of these denials border on the ridiculous.

Jim Adcock, a State Farm supervisor, repeatedly refused to call a contest a contest when questioned in the Olson trial. He was shown documents referring to a competition in Arizona among estimators to see who could include the most salvage parts on their estimates.

"Well, there was an awareness campaign . . ." he said.

"It was a competition, wasn't it?" Adcock was asked.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin