Snake Killer

It was a long week for Kim Zilisch. The Motorola accountant had spent three grueling days taking tests at the Phoenix Civic Plaza for her CPA license. On Friday night, she finally got to relax. Her fiancé, Jeff Rosinski, picked her up downtown and drove her to the inaugural concert at Blockbuster Desert Sky Pavilion.

Zilisch, 23, was excited. Tall, lanky Rosinski, 27, was so sweet: He had surprised her with tickets to the Billy Joel show. She loved the "Piano Man" and looked forward to a night out with her fiancé after the grind of her exams.

Following a memorable, unseasonably warm evening under the stars, Rosinski and Zilisch headed back to Mesa. Content and exhausted, Zilisch dozed off while Rosinski drove.

It was a merciful slumber.

When she awoke two days later in a hospital bed, her body ached. One of her fingers wouldn't move. She couldn't open her left eye. When she asked about Rosinski, a hospital staffer told her he was dead.

After exiting at the Price Road off ramp from the Superstition Freeway, Rosinski's car had been demolished by a teenage drag-racer who had sped through two red lights before T-boning the driver's side of the Pontiac Grand Am. The violent crash peeled off the roof of Rosinski's car like a lid on a can of tuna. The dashboard disintegrated, the console rammed into Zilisch's left leg and the right side of her head was slammed against the passenger window.

Rosinski was killed instantly. Zilisch, unconscious, had to be cut out of the car.

A decade after the accident, most of Zilisch's wounds have healed. She has regained the use of her finger. Indentations on her left thigh are concealed by her clothing. Her eye, which remained shut for nearly a year, is open. But the lid droops slightly and the pupil is permanently dilated and fixed. When Zilisch looks straight ahead, she can see fine (and she looks okay to an observer), but if she tries to glance in any direction, that left eye doesn't move and she sees double images.

Zilisch has rebuilt her life. She left Motorola because Rosinski had worked there, too; it was too painful to stay. She went to graduate school for an advanced degree and is now in a new job.

Resuming her social life was more difficult. Her eye injury made her feel ugly, she says. And because her double vision -- and memories of Rosinski -- kept her from participating in what used to be their favorite sports, she gained weight. That just added to her low self-esteem, she says.

She was "a downer" to be around, depressed and prone to crying. Pretty soon friends stopped including her in their social events.

Going to school again introduced her to new people, but she felt guilty dating other men. Zilisch says it was four years after the accident before she was again able to enter into a relationship.

Today, she is seriously involved with a new man.

Recounting the horrific events of November 9, 1990, Zilisch maintains her composure. It was, she notes, a long time ago.

Only once do her eyes well up. The tears come not when she tells about the loss of her fiancé or the brutality of the accident. No, her voice only catches when she recounts what happened afterward, when she had to fight her own insurance company -- State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. -- to give her the underinsured motorist coverage she had purchased.

She tells of being subjected to interview after interview as new claims investigators were assigned to her case and having to visit five doctors for examinations of her eye. State Farm refused to accept the fact that her disfiguring eye injury was indeed permanent. She says the physician State Farm sent her to yanked her face from side to side to gauge the lack of movement in her rigid orb. Recounting this episode, Zilisch almost cries. Then she regains her composure.

"I just wanted the money, the coverage, that I had paid for," she says. "There's nothing wrong with that."

What was wrong, according to a Maricopa County Superior Court jury that eventually awarded her $1 million, was how State Farm treated Zilisch. The Arizona Court of Appeals as well as the state Supreme Court agreed.

The state's highest court noted in its March ruling that there was evidence that State Farm had purposely dragged out Zilisch's case, ignored repeated opinions that her injury was permanent, and acted according to its "deliberate practice of underpaying claims nationwide."

A six-month New Times examination of Arizona cases involving State Farm, as well as an Internet-assisted search of court records of similar cases in other states, supports the conclusion that the treatment Kim Zilisch received from her own insurance company was no accident. In numerous courtrooms around the country and in state investigations, a pattern has emerged showing that State Farm -- the industry giant that insures one in every five vehicles on the road and one in four homes -- employs company policies aimed specifically at screwing its own policyholders for the sake of higher profits.