[Update Below] The Internet has been en fuego since yesterday with local comedian Matt Fisher's allegation that his late sister's insurance company, Progressive, was defending the driver who killed her. It's a pretty appalling story; as Fisher tells it, "The other guy’s insurance company looked at the situation and settled with my sister’s estate basically immediately. Now, because the other driver was underinsured, that payment didn’t amount to much, but my sister carried a policy with Progressive against the possibility of an accident with an underinsured driver. So Progressive was now on the hook for the difference between the other guy’s insurance and the value of Katie’s policy." Of course, insurance companies have ways of dealing with "hooks":
At which point we learned the first surprising thing about Progressive: Carrying Progressive insurance and getting into an accident does not entitle you to the value of your insurance policy. It just pisses off Progressive’s lawyers. Here I address you, Prospective Progressive Insurance Customer: someday when you have your accident, I promise that there will be enough wiggle room for Progressive’s bottomless stack of in-house attorneys to make a court case out of it and to hammer at that court case until you or your surviving loved ones run out of money.
Which is what Progressive decided to do to my family. In hopes that a jury would hang or decide that the accident was her fault, they refused to pay the policy to my sister’s estate. Out of a sense of honor, and out of a sense of the cost of my sister’s outstanding student loans, my folks opted to try to go after the money through legal channels. At which point they learned another delightful thing. In Maryland, you may not sue an insurance company when they refuse to fork over your money. Instead, what they had to do was sue the guy who killed my sister, establish his negligence in court, and then leverage that decision to force Progressive to pay the policy.
Fisher claims Progressive’s legal team ended up defending the driver. What's really infuriating is that this isn't unheard of, especially in the state of Maryland, which uses what's known as "Contributory Negligence" to settle civil suits. "That means that if you are even 1% at fault for the accident you are barred from any recovery," an auto insurance expert tells Consumerist, elaborating that "In most states, you can collect if you are up to 50% at fault but only the portion that you are not responsible for, but not in Maryland. One percent and you don't get anything."
So what's more messed up, the insurance companies or the insurance laws... which are essentially written by insurance company lobbyists? The only silver lining in all this is that at least Fisher's family ended up winning—Consumerist reports that the jury found in favor the driver's family in the amount of $760,000 plus costs. The cost to Progressive in terms of public relations damage remains to be seen. The company has been issuing this statement in response to a deluge of criticism:
This is a tragic case, and our sympathies go out to Mr. Fisher and his family for the pain they’ve had to endure. We fully investigated this claim and relevant background/evidence, and feel we properly handled the claim within our contractual obligations. Again, this is a tragic situation, and we’re sorry for everything Mr. Fisher and his family have gone through.
However, all of Progressive's Tweets regarding this lawsuit have since been deleted. Actor Wil Wheaton, who boasts a vast Internet presence, is encouraging everyone with Progressive insurance to cancel their policies, and he created this haunting audio recording that "captures just exactly how the PRBot sounded."
Update 2:49 p.m.: Progressive denies defending the driver, issuing a statement insisting, "To be very clear, Progressive did not serve as the attorney for the defendant in this case. He was defended by his insurance company, Nationwide. There was a question as to who was at fault, and a jury decided in the Fisher family’s favor just last week. We respect the verdict and now can continue to work with the Fisher family to reach a resolution."
Update 6:17 p.m.: Fisher has responded to Progressives' statement. An excerpt:
At the beginning of the trial on Monday, August 6th, an attorney identified himself as Jeffrey R. Moffat and stated that he worked for Progressive Advanced Insurance Company. He then sat next to the defendant. During the trial, both in and out of the courtroom, he conferred with the defendant. He gave an opening statement to the jury, in which he proposed the idea that the defendant should not be found negligent in the case. He cross-examined all of the plaintiff’s witnesses.
On direct examination, he questioned all of the defense’s witnesses. He made objections on behalf of the defendant, and he was a party to the argument of all of the objections heard in the case. After all of the witnesses had been called, he stood before the jury and gave a closing argument, in which he argued that my sister was responsible for the accident that killed her, and that the jury should not decide that the defendant was negligent.
Read his entire post here.