At Warshauer Law Group, we represent clients who have suffered catastrophic injuries and families who have lost a loved one because another person or a company failed to act responsibly. In these cases, where the damages are high, we expect that it will be a tough battle to hold the at-fault party accountable for the full extent of the damages they cause. Recently, however, I found myself having to fight a small battle simply to get an automobile insurance company to pay for the minor damage caused to my car in a small car wreck where the other driver was clearly at fault.
This blog entry is not intended to provide legal advice for any specific situation, but I thought I would share my experience because it highlights the steps that can be taken when insurance companies try and avoid paying damages in small car wreck cases.
It all started on a Friday in late March of last year. I was sitting at a complete stop in traffic on I-285 when I suddenly heard and then felt another car rear-end me. Luckily, it sounded worse than it felt.
I got out of my car and realized that there were three vehicles involved. The car that hit me had been knocked into me after being rear-ended by another driver. Luckily, everyone seemed to be okay. We all moved to the side of the interstate and called for the Sandy Springs police, who arrived quickly. The driver who rear-ended the car that struck me was a nice guy. He admitted that the wreck was his fault and got a ticket from the officer. We all exchanged insurance and contact.
The next week I contacted the at-fault driver’s insurance company. In short time, they sent an adjuster out to look at the damage to my truck, which was largely confined to the rear bumper. The adjuster produced an estimate that was just under a thousand dollars.
Shortly after I received the quote I gave the insurance company a call to negotiate a final settlement and resolve the matter. I waded through the automated system and asked for the person I was told to speak with and was sent to his voicemail. I left a detailed message and waited for him to call me back . . . never happened. So I called back and repeated the whole process again, left a voicemail and waited for a response . . . again, nothing.
Frustrated, I turned to a Georgia statute for help. Under O.C.G.A. §33-4-7 insurers have a duty to investigate car wrecks, and if liability is clear, to make an effort to settle property damages claims. To help enforce this duty, the law allows a person whose property has been destroyed or damage under those circumstances to send a letter by certified mail to the insurance company making a demand. If the insurer fails to respond within 60 days, and the person whose property was damages is ultimately awarded damages in an amount equal to or greater than what was demanded, then the insurance company may be forced to pay, as punishment, damages of either 150% of the value of property damage or $5,000, whichever is higher.
Here is the letter I used:
VIA US MAIL, CERTIFIED MAIL,
RETURN RECEIPT REQUESTED
May 31, 2011
XXXXX Insurance Company
Attn: Mr. V. C., Ms. D. S., or Claims Department
4 Easton Oval
Columbus, Ohio 43219
RE: Myself: Trent Shuping
Your Insured: J. O.
Your Policy No.: KY0063
Your Claim No.: 10-01-0000
Date of Loss: 3/25/2011
Dear Mr. C., Ms. S., Sir, or Madam:
This letter is being set to you pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 33-4-7 with respect to the undersigned’s property damage claim against your insured, J. O. This claim arises out of an automobile wreck that occurred in Fulton County, Georgia on March 25, 2011. Your insured was determined to be the cause of the wreck, and he received a citation for causing it. The police report is enclosed.
Pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 33-4-7, I demand $985.50 for property damage to my vehicle that was caused by your insured. This amount is quite reasonable. This offer remains open for 60 days from your receipt of this demand. If you refuse to pay this amount, I will have no choice but to file suit and will then be entitled to $5,000 plus attorneys’ fees in the event I ultimately recover an amount equal to or in excess of this demand. Once suit is filed, I am required to serve a copy of this letter and the Complaint on the Commissioner of Insurance and the consumers’ insurance advocate. See O.C.G.A. § 33-4-7(g).
This letter relates to my property damage claim only and is in no way to be construed as a demand to settle my personal injury claim or any other non-property claims arising from this incident.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call me at (404) 754-xxxx. My address is 2xx xxxxx Street, Atlanta, Georgia, 30313.
When I sent the letter I fully expected to get a reply, however, in the sixty days following I received no response at all.
I called the insurance company again and asked to speak with a supervisor. Again, I was directed to somebody’s voicemail, but this time, I actually got a call back. I explained the situation to the agent on the other end of the line. He told me that he would send me a check for the amount of the estimate. I again explained to him that because his company had ignored me for so long and failed to follow Georgia law that it was now subject to damages up to $5,000, in addition to the cost of my bumper. He told me I was crazy.
So, I called in the Hammer. I asked Darl Champion, another associate at our firm, to represent me in the matter going forward. Darl sent the agent I spoke with a letter outlining the insurance company’s failure to follow the law. Eventually, Darl spoke with the agent, who offered him several excuses for why the insurance company had ignored me and failed to follow Georgia law. None of the excuses were credible and in some cases, had they been true, the insurance company would have been in violation of other provisions of Georgia law.
Ultimately, the agent and Darl were unable to come to an agreement and the insurance company referred the matter to their Georgia lawyers. Once the Georgia lawyers had a chance to review the facts, they called Darl and settled the whole matter for roughly four times the amount of property damage to my truck.
It was never my goal to try and get anything more out of the insurance company than the damage caused to my truck but it was another example of the way some people and companies will do anything to avoid being held accountable. Luckily, Georgia law provides at least some remedy to a person who finds himself or herself in my situation.
All the best,