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Gunder’s Auto Center of Lakeland, Fla., is still awaiting a Florida court’s ruling in regard to the shop’s request for summary judgment in its slander and tortious interference case vs. State Farm.
In April, U.S. District Court Judge Steven Merryday dismissed Gunder’s suit against State Farm, ruling that although the insurer may have made defamatory statements about Gunder’s, the shop failed to prove that the insurer’s primary motive in making such statements was to harm the shop rather than further its own cause.
Gunder’s appealed the decision, and in May the Federal Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Ga., ordered State Farm to undergo mediation with Gunder’s to bring a satisfactory resolution to the shop’s claims against the insurer.
Gunder’s owner Ray Gunder said he has been getting a lot of inquiries about the status of the case and recently released a letter to the industry expressing his own viewpoint on the case:
This entire matter hinges on whether any insurer, including State Farm, can merely target a repairer and have the right to say anything it wishes with the intent to harm the repairer and disparage his or her good name in an effort to interfere with the relationship between the repairer and his or her customer as long as the insurer doesn’t breach the legal limit referred to as ‘express malice.’ It’s my understanding that, according to State Farm, this means it can say anything it wishes about me and my company up to the extent that one is a ‘murderer’ or ‘rapist’!
As it was explained to me, it would appear that State Farm believes that because it’s merely involved in the payment of repair, it therefore has what’s referred to as ‘qualified privilege’ and is free to say anything it wishes to its insureds without fear of recourse, including but not limited to: ‘They do substandard work,’ ‘They don’t have the equipment necessary to pass our inspection’ and ‘They overcharge and you’ll have to pay the difference out of pocket.’
We firmly believe that insurers are not party to the contract of repair between a repairer and his or her customer and have no business interfering with that relationship.
This type of conduct should never have been considered a ‘privilege’ or acceptable behavior by any individual or entity! These tactics are nothing less than strong-arm and slanderous acts by bullies of our industry, and we will not merely accept it or condone it as a normal business practice.
We’re not alone in this issue as many repairers have heard the same or similar slanderous comments throughout the country from not only State Farm but other insurers as well. So this issue isn’t merely about Gunder’s Auto Center vs. State Farm, it’s about every honest and ethical repairer around the country who stands up against any abusive insurer for what’s right and ethical. This is truly a David and Goliath matter, and while we don’t anticipate actually slaying the giant, we anticipate the outcome to be successful in curtailing State Farm’s predatory and abusive activities toward all repairers.
Other litigation Gunder’s has against State Farm includes smaller claims on behalf of our customers involving recovery of required P-Page repair procedures and paint and materials (P&M) costs which the insurer has refused to pay due to those costs not being within its ‘PCP’ (prevailing competitive pricing). However, we’ve learned that State Farm is paying other shops in our market area for the very same things.
Over the last two years of presenting electronic data-based material invoicing (utilizing PMC Logic) to every insurance company, only State Farm has refused Gunder’s invoices while capping us at a set amount. We’ve learned through investigation and discovery that many other repairers in and around our market area are indeed being compensated by State Farm for the very same items and material costs which it’s denying us. We’re pursuing recovery via a Power of Attorney (POA), often referred to in our industry as ‘Assignment of Rights’ or ‘Assignment of Proceeds.’ We’ve had similar issues with other insurers in the past, and our customers prevailed in all of them. At this time, we have approximately 30 such cases involving State Farm which will continue to develop and find their way in front of a judge and jury.
It’s important to note that the slander and tortious interference litigation has taken a significant economic and emotional toll on me and my family. It’s not for the weak-of-heart, and I’m not too proud to admit it has brought me to my knees financially.
I recently read two great books, ‘Delay, Deny and Defend’ and ‘Collision Collusion,’ which describe what I’m currently experiencing firsthand. The insurance industry can financially outlast almost anyone willing to challenge it in court. It usually isn’t about right and wrong but who has the deepest pockets.
As much as State Farm’s accusations and lies to my customers have pained me and my family personally, we understand this battle is not our own; we’re acting on behalf of those honest and ethical repairers across this great country who are confronted with the same issues on a daily, weekly and monthly basis and who are watching, hoping and praying for our success.
Most are aware of the financial toll this case has taken on me and my family and have discussed setting up a fund that those who are supportive of our efforts and who see our prevailing as a win for the industry at-large can contribute to. By contributing what they can, they can be part of the change this industry so desperately needs. If we prevail, I’ve agreed to match whatever contributions were provided toward our effort to be used as an industry legal fund to assist others in their efforts to level the playing field. We need to continue the effort to bring a fair balance to our industry.
We appreciate the thoughts, prayers and contributions of our industry brethren and suppliers across the country, and please know that I’m ‘all-in’ and will continue to do my best to stop the strong-arm tactics that have plagued and continue to plague our industry.
I offer my sincere thanks to the industry media and its writers for their continued interest, unbiased coverage and thorough dissemination of the information in these issues.
I leave you with a quote from M. Scott Peck:
“The whole course of human history may depend on a change of heart in one solitary and even humble individual for it is in the solitary mind and soul of the individual that the battle between good and evil is waged and ultimately won or lost.”
To contact Ray Gunder, call (863) 688-7897.