Connecticut Repairers Win Unanimous Supreme Court Decision on Steering - BodyShop Business
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Connecticut Repairers Win Unanimous Supreme Court Decision on Steering

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The Auto Body Association of Connecticut (ABAC) today announced that it
won a significant victory in its pending lawsuit against The Hartford
Fire Insurance Company, with the Connecticut Supreme Court unanimously
upholding a lower court certification of the class action.

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ABAC, along with three Connecticut auto body repair shops, allege that
the insurance company engaged in a pattern of unfair practices that
violated Connecticut law. The Hartford is accused of steering its
customers to its “preferred” shops rather than freely allowing
customers to use shops of their own choosing.
 
The suit further claims that The Hartford suppressed shop labor rates
by eliminating the use of independent appraisers and relying
exclusively on its own automobile service representatives to perform
appraisals so the company could control their content, including labor
rates. The result, in the ABAC’s opinion, was that consumers did not
get fair, independent appraisals of the damage to their automobiles.
 
“The Hartford reviews the appraisals to make sure they conform to
company expectations,” said Bob Skrip, president of ABAC and owner of
Skrip’s Auto Body, Inc., in Prospect, Conn. “The Hartford has
characterized shops that charge more than its approved labor rate as
‘militant.’”
 
In its ruling, the Supreme Court paved the way for a Superior Court
trial in the class action against The Hartford, a class that could
potentially include hundreds of independent repair shops across
Connecticut.
 
“This is just one more step in a long road against The Hartford and
other insurance companies that seemingly disregard both regulations and
consumers’ best interests,” Skrip said. “This is a very positive
development for consumers and body shops statewide. It remains a long
process but we’re more confident than ever that the courts will rule in
our favor.”
 
The trial is tentatively scheduled for December.
 
The accusations against The Hartford were supported in the lawsuit by
extensive documentation including internal memoranda detailing company
policies, as well as several depositions by company employees, Skrip
said.
 
“For years, every body shop owner in Connecticut has been forced to
fight against The Hartford and similar car insurance companies,” he
said. “Enough is enough. Consumers should remember, it’s your car. It’s
your choice where it’s repaired.”
 
According to the ABAC, evidence in the case showed that when customers
required repairs, employees of The Hartford known as "customer care
team specialists" were instructed to direct the customers to a
preferred shop in The Hartford’s "customer care repair service
program." The ABAC says consumers were often pressured to abandon their
choices in favor of The Hartford’s preferred shops.
 
The ABAC also says the specialists were trained to aggressively "sell"
the company’s repair program by informing customers that, if they used
the recommended shop, they would obtain discounts from their
deductibles and a lifetime guarantee for the repairs.
 
“Any insurance company touting a lifetime guarantee is offering the
same thing that every other independent body shop offers,” said Thomas
Bivona, past president of ABAC and owner of My Way Auto Body in
Stamford and Greenwich, Conn. The lawsuit, filed in 2003, was brought
to the forefront under Bivona’s leadership.
 
“The insurance companies clearly place considerable pressure on their
specialists, with supervisors monitoring calls and coaching the
specialists to break consumers’ will to go to their own neighborhood
repair shop,” Bivona said. “We found that The Hartford even offers cash
bonuses and other incentives to specialists who direct customers to the
preferred shops. Specialists could be disciplined for deficient
performance.”
 
“Insurance companies carjack consumers by steering them to repair shops
the companies prefer – shops that may install aftermarket or used
parts,” Bivona said. “Using these parts may void a new car warranty –
something insurance companies neglect to tell consumers. Consumers
don’t see that company-preferred shops may cut corners on repairs,
perhaps using inferior parts.”
 
Attorney Alan Neigher of the Westport, Conn. law firm Byelas and
Neigher, counsel for ABAC, said, “We’re very pleased and gratified that
the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the well-reasoned decision of the
trial court. We believe this is another step toward bringing a sense of
order to the auto body industry in Connecticut in accordance with
Connecticut statutes and regulations.”
 
Attorney David Slossberg of Hurwitz, Sagarin, Slossberg and Knuff of
Milford, Conn., co-counsel for ABAC who argued the case before the
Supreme Court, said, “We’re very pleased with the Supreme Court
decision which permits our case to proceed as a class action. It
greatly advances our ability to represent and vindicate the rights of
these hard-working small business owners.”
 
The legislature earlier this month approved a new law to tighten
existing consumer protections from insurance company steering. Attorney
General Richard Blumenthal, along with a number of state senators and
representatives, supported bills to deter “collusive relationships
between certain insurers and repairers.”
 
The ABAC is a statewide consumer advocacy group dedicated to the
advancement of the collision repair industry. The ABAC continuously
strives to enhance the professional abilities and knowledge of its
membership, helping provide safe and dependable repairs for the public.

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For more information on the ABAC or steering, visit www.abaconn.org.

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