Hidden Damage

The insurance company claimed that Sunserea McClelland's problems were all in her head. She knew better. But would a jury believe her?

McClelland doesn't dwell on the changes, but she becomes emotional when talking about what the ordeal has meant to her kids. "They've lost out on a lot," she says. "A lot. It changed their lives completely. We lost our independence. Jaysun had to take on a lot of responsibility, help his brother with his homework, help with the cooking. They've forgotten a lot of it, but it was hard on them. I couldn't play with them anymore. They couldn't be loud in the house. They couldn't be in sports because I couldn't drive them there and I couldn't pay for it. They don't deserve that."

Gradually, she has begun to grasp how the brain injury has affected her and how it will limit her future. "I don't remember ever really processing it or trying to understand it, even to this day," she says. "I learned a lot about it at the trial, but I don't remember some point where I was crushed to learn about it. There were so many things happening. I didn't have time to fit it all together."

John Johnston
Never give in: Attorney Greg Gold took on a minor accident case -- and endured five years of costly litigation and nasty tactics.
John Johnston
Never give in: Attorney Greg Gold took on a minor accident case -- and endured five years of costly litigation and nasty tactics.

Welcome to the Snake Farm

Eight years ago, while he was still in law school in Missouri, Greg Gold was carjacked at gunpoint in a hotel parking lot. The man ordered Gold to drive to an ATM and withdraw all the money he could. Gold told his abductor that he'd picked the wrong person to rob. As the ATM visit quickly demonstrated, Gold had a balance of negative six cents in his account.

The two men spent the next few hours driving around greater St. Louis, trying to cash one of Gold's out-of-state checks. At one grocery store, Gold furtively tried to alert the clerk to his plight, writing "HELP ME" on a check-cashing application while his companion, hand in pocket, stood nearby.

"I can't help you," the clerk snapped. "You're from out of state. It'll take two weeks to process this."

As the night wore on, Gold persuaded the carjacker to stop pointing the gun at his head. He explained why it would be a bad idea to kill him or steal his car. By the time he dropped the man off at a McDonald's, Gold had given him his phone number and offered to help find him a job.

A few months later, Gold was in Denver, looking for a job himself. Attorney John Trueax said he wasn't hiring anyone, but he agreed to meet with him. Gold told him about the carjacking. Trueax and his partner, John Kiel, decided that a guy who could talk his way out of that situation might make a pretty fair lawyer. They offered him a position with their firm.

Gold believes he can be a very successful lawyer, but like any young practitioner, he has moments of doubt. The McClelland case gives him quite a few of those moments.

Even before he knows the full scope of what he's dealing with, Gold realizes that the case isn't headed for a quick settlement. One look at the accident report tells him that much. The insurance carrier listed for the other driver is the kingpin of the industry, State Farm Insurance.

"When you see there isn't a lot of property damage and State Farm is on the other end, you know you're going to be in litigation," Gold says. "They're the leader. Allstate and the others follow them. And State Farm isn't just tough when they're defending one of their insured. They're difficult to deal with even if they're your insurance company and you're trying to get your PIP [personal injury protection] benefits."

One out of five cars on the road is insured by State Farm, the undisputed champion in an extremely contentious business. The company has almost 40 million auto policies in force and processes up to 750,000 auto injury claims each year. But among plaintiffs' attorneys, State Farm is known as "Snake Farm" because of its reputation for underpaying claims, dragging out settlements and playing rough with accident victims who dare to take their cases to trial.

In recent years, the company has been the target of a slew of unflattering media reports and regulatory probes dealing with allegedly underhanded business practices. State Farm has been accused of altering medical reports in order to deny claims, using substandard generic parts to save money in auto repairs, and pushing profits at the expense of policyholders. Company officials have denied any wrongdoing, even as State Farm has been hammered by judges and juries across the country for its treatment of its own customers. The Utah Supreme Court recently upheld a $147 million judgment awarded to a policyholder who claimed the company failed to protect him from ruinous litigation after an accident. A few months earlier, the Arizona Supreme Court concluded that State Farm had engaged in "a deliberate practice of underpaying claims nationwide."

In Colorado, State Farm and other major insurers have lobbied hard for caps on damages and for higher thresholds for filing a lawsuit, arguing that excessive litigation drives up the costs of insurance. After more than a decade of tort-reform efforts, however, Colorado has some of the most expensive auto insurance rates in the West and ranks fourteenth in the nation; studies indicate that soaring premiums have far more to do with the rising cost of auto repairs than with personal-injury lawsuits. In fact, the number of civil cases filed in Colorado has dropped dramatically in the past decade, even as the population has surged.

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