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Approximately 80 people from 40 Northern California body shops met on Nov. 12 to discuss steering issues related to State Farm, and G & C Autobody owner Gene Crozat made it abundantly clear to those in attendance what he plans to do about it.
“My intent is to sue the heck out of State Farm. I just want their neck over the barbed wire before I clip it,” said Crozat.
Mark Venardi, one of two lawyers who were also in attendance, informed the gathering that a potential class-action lawsuit is likely and a strategy to win in court is close at hand. Venardi and fellow attorney Martin Zurada told repairers how they can protect themselves from steering and what steps they can take to pursue legal action if necessary.
“You can’t count on the legislature or the Department of Insurance, so what can you do? You can count on yourselves and you can count on your lawyer,” said Venardi.
Binders filled with documents pertaining to steering were handed out to each shop owner. The documents included testimonials from customers who have been victims of State Farm’s alleged practices.
Other materials included Department of Insurance request for assistance forms, legal briefs, examples of court filings, small claims court documents for plaintiffs’ claims, labor rate surveys and judgments against State Farm.
Most of the shop owners who were at the meeting have been in business for years and have tangled with State Farm and other insurance companies before. They understand that the task to protect themselves is a difficult one but are resolved to carry on.
“I’m an advocate,” said Bolden Liu, owner of Bee Automotive Collision & Towing in San Francisco. “I fought my ass off years ago and believe me, it’s not just State Farm, it’s all insurance companies. Is a lawsuit worth it? Do we have a shot? Yeah, we have a shot.”
Although steering and irregularities in labor rate surveys have been contested by the collision repair industry for years, State Farm and other insurers have consistently defended their actions and insisted that consumers have a choice and that all applicable laws are faithfully adhered to. Calls to State Farm regarding this meeting were not returned.
“[Insurers] have a lousy track record and I just want to get a fair break for insurers, shops and consumers,” said Crozat. “And unfortunately, right now we’re not getting one.”
Crozat has not been shy about litigating against insurers, taking various insurers to small claims court over the last several years roughly 300 times and emerging victorious a vast majority of the time. He was spotted at the International Autobody Congress & Exposition (NACE) in Las Vegas a few weeks ago handing out copies of a recent small claims case his shop won against State Farm that addressed labor rates. Crozat highlighted a section where the judge commented on State Farm’s labor rate survey:
If State Farm chose to determine their price by reading chicken entrails and consulting with the three witches from Macbeth, that’s fine. I think that’s just about as accurate as the survey itself is. I think that the survey from a statistical standpoint would get a first-year college student a flunking grade.
When asked how it is that he can sue insurers over and over yet not be steered around even more than he claims he already is, Crozat said, “Because they’re scared to death of me. They wouldn’t dare do that.”
Most repairers cite fear, retribution or lack of financial resources as reasons why they don’t seek legal action against insurers. In a BodyShop Business online poll conducted in November 2008, 81 percent of respondents said suing an insurance company is worth it depending on the circumstances. Eleven percent said it was pointless so why try, and 9 percent said it was something they would never consider.
A second meeting is tentatively scheduled for Southern California in January to address other shops’ grievances and to inform and educate more people on how to fight steering.
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