Another Insurance Nightmare

Heather Smith's tribulations included not only Tom Luther's assault, but also attacks by insurance companies and their lawyers.

Almost a year after the attack, Smith's neck seemed to be getting worse. An avid bike rider before the attack, she had given up the sport because she couldn't lift her head to see where she was going. She had formed a habit when sitting or standing of propping up her head with one hand because her neck muscles were too weak.

On a good note, DGH agreed to forgive a little more than $2,000 that Smith still owed on her deductible because she was the victim of a violent crime. But in March, the company she worked for went out of business, and American Medical Security canceled her insurance policy. Smith would no longer be covered for psychiatric counseling, nor would she be covered for plastic surgery on her scarred chest and back.

Soon after, Smith was listening to a Sunday morning radio talk show on which the subject was no-fault automobile insurance. What caught Smith's attention was the unusual nature of the settlement claims. One man won a claim after a camper he was lifting on to the bed of his truck fell and hurt him. A woman who had been raped in her car had received coverage for her medical expenses.

"I was selling my car, so I wondered if I would be covered," Smith recalls. "All I was hoping for was to be reimbursed for what I had paid on my deductible, about $900, and maybe get some help with plastic surgery."

Smith contacted Allstate agent Johnson. "He said, 'Oh, yeah, we should have been notified about this from the beginning.' I reminded him that he could have said something when I asked him if I was covered under my homeowner's policy. He told Allstate's attorney he couldn't remember us ever having that conversation." (Johnson referred Westword to the Allstate public-relations office, which did not respond to questions.)

Johnson told Smith to contact Allstate claims adjuster Susan Brust. "She said she was sending me a claim form and to get it in right away," Smith says.

Smith returned the form and waited a week before calling Brust. "She said she needed more time," Smith recalls. "I waited two weeks and called again. This time, she said they hadn't received the police report of the incident yet."

Two more weeks went by, Smith recalls, "but she said she still didn't have the report. So I mailed a request to the police on a Thursday and got the report on Monday."

Frustrated, Smith hired an attorney. His paralegals called Brust and were told that a copy of the police report had been received but lost. They faxed her another one.

But the runaround was nothing compared to what she went through in June 1994: a three-hour deposition conducted by Sherwin Wittman, the attorney for Allstate Insurance Company, in the company of Brust.

Wittman made it clear that the company believed that her former boyfriend was responsible and that the act had nothing to do with the use and operation of the car--hence, the company would not have to pay. "[The former boyfriend] may have been the individual who stabbed her or may have been the individual responsible for it," Wittman replied when asked by Smith's lawyer about the relevancy of his questioning.

Out of the blue, Wittman asked what she was wearing the night of the attack. "Like I had gone out to sell my car in a bikini or something," Smith says. "Like I had 'asked for it.'"

As it became clear that the lawyer was questioning Smith's character, she grew angry. "What made it worse was, Susan Brust was sitting there with her arms crossed and rolling her eyes," Smith says. "I would have thought that a woman in particular would have had more empathy for what I had been through."

The attitude of the insurance company only compounded the depression and anxiety Smith was experiencing. It was clear to her that the police were never going to catch her attacker. Her sleep was disturbed by nightmares of being chased and stabbed.

Then, in February 1995, Allstate notified her that it was accepting her claim; she was covered for up to $100,000 in expenses. Smith's attorney told her that he was no longer needed and that any further questions could be dealt with by directly corresponding with the Allstate claims department.

Smith was elated. But a month later, her world was turned upside down again when her psychiatrist showed her a newspaper article about a man who had been arrested for the murder of Cher Elder. When she saw the accompanying photo of Thomas Luther, Smith knew she had found the man who attacked her.

A short time later, she also learned why her neck continued to give her such problems. The blow to her neck had separated two vertebrae; essentially, she had been living for two years with a broken neck. It was vital that she get it fixed, two surgeons advised, because if she suffered the slightest accident, she might be paralyzed for life.

Smith called Allstate to make sure the surgery to fix her neck was covered. A plastic surgeon had told her that there was nothing much that could be done for the scar on her chest, but this was more important anyway. She was told the neck surgery fell under her $100,000 benefits, but just to be sure, she asked the surgeon and St. Anthony's Hospital, where the surgery would be performed, to call Allstate. They, too, were told she was covered. "In fact," she recalls, "Allstate said there was no need for pre-approval."

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