Take a Memo
Last month, State Farm sent a memo to its Colorado agents and employees. The subject was Alan Prendergast's June 27 Westword story, "Hidden Damage," which followed the insurance travails of Sunserea McClelland -- and the trial that resulted in her winning a $1.8 million jury verdict against State Farm in Jefferson County this past April.
In the memo, State Farm public-affairs manager Alan Miller offers points agents can "share" with customers who might have questions regarding the story. In the interest of further sharing, I offer additional points in italics.
"The case resulted from a minor rear-end car accident in which the plaintiff's car was hit at a speed estimated to be under five miles an hour. There was very little damage to either car, and no one in either car was treated for injuries or went to the hospital immediately following the accident. According to our experts, there was also no clear evidence that the accident caused the injury she later claimed. Because of the lack of damage or a clear link to the injury, State Farm defended the case when a lawsuit was brought against our policyholder." But McClelland, who suffered a brain injury in the accident according to her own insurance company's doctor, only sued the policyholder because State Farm refused to cover her medical costs. And by the time the verdict was rendered, she had been examined by more than forty physicians and therapists -- including State Farm's well-compensated dream team of experts.
"According to the article, Westword unsuccessfully attempted to speak to our policyholder and her [sic] attorney. No attempt was made by the author or the editor of the story to contact State Farm or get State Farm's side of the story. The story was written from the perspective of the plaintiff and her lawyer." And, of course, from the perspective of the experts who testified and others who did not, as well as from court documents that contain State Farm's side as presented at the lengthy trial. John Rodman, the attorney retained by State Farm to defend its policyholder, was given repeated opportunities to discuss the case; unlike McClelland's attorney, he chose not to do so. Charles Goodwin, that policyholder, was given the opportunity to discuss the case; he, too, chose not to do so. Unlike State Farm, neither McClelland nor her attorney, Greg Gold, has a PR department that is so up on the facts of the case that it gets the sex of the sued policyholder wrong.
"There appear to be factual errors and omissions in the story. For example, the author fails to mention the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Campbell case verdict out of Utah, while reporting the negative language written by the Utah courts as if that case was closed. This and the complete lack of Westword obtaining our policyholder's side of the story in the recent trial casts doubt on the accurateness and fairness of the entire piece." The only "factual error" cited in the memo concerns the Campbell verdict -- a $147 million judgment awarded a State Farm policyholder who claimed that the company had failed to protect him from ruinous litigation after an accident. The Utah Supreme Court recently upheld that verdict, as Prendergast reported. And while the U.S. Supreme Court is indeed reviewing the case, there's no guarantee that it will rule in State Farm's favor. For that matter, State Farm is appealing the McClelland verdict, too -- but that doesn't negate the fact that a Jeffco jury thought McClelland deserved a whopping sum of money from State Farm. Asked for other alleged inaccuracies in the story, a State Farm spokesman said that such matters are confidential and that he would have to get permission from the policyholder -- whether a he or a she -- to discuss them.
"Readers of the entire story will also discover that the plaintiff in the case was ready to drop the case several times, and ultimately left the decision to continue the case to her lawyer. It went to trial because of the aggressiveness of an entrepreneurial trial lawyer, one who admits in the story an 'intense dislike' for a company he 'despises': State Farm." McClelland's sister, who was the first person to really notice how the accident had adversely affected her sister's behavior (recognizing brain damage can be difficult), says this of Gold: "For Greg, I don't think it was ever about money. He really believed in her and brought a lot of love and care to this case.... He stuck with this for four years when everybody wanted to give up. He's a really exceptional human being."
"Several paragraphs repeat common trial lawyer statements and anti-State Farm propaganda about the level of our customer service and plaintiff attorney strategy to influence jury pools to win lottery-like judgments against State Farm. State Farm remains the No. 1 insurer of cars and homes in the nation, and in Colorado, because of our dedication to customer service. Invite your customers to judge State Farm on the service you provide, not what they read in a one-sided tabloid story." Prendergast reported that State Farm has a reputation for underpaying claims, dragging out settlements and playing rough with accident victims who dare to take their cases to trial -- all behaviors displayed in McClelland's case. But she'snot the only one with complaints about State Farm, which critics have taken to calling "Snake Farm": The Arizona Supreme Court recently concluded that State Farm had engaged in "a deliberate practice of underpaying claims nationwide."
"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," says Gold. "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 personal-injury protection benefits."
The company also takes an intense interest in the identity of people who leak internal memos, judging from the reactions of assorted employees in the public-affairs department to news that Westword has a copy of Miller's memo.
"Excessive trial lawyer involvement and litigation in cases like this, in which there was little or no damage to vehicles and an unclear link between the accident and the plaintiff's injuries, is one important reason why auto insurance rates in Colorado are among the highest in the nation and why State Farm continues to work for a revamping of our current system." Insurance companies' earlier work to revamp the system has already resulted in the deck being stacked in favor of the defense: For example, at Colorado trials, no one is allowed to mention whether a defendant even has auto insurance, leaving a jury with the impression that the victim is going after Joe Sixpack rather than a multibillion dollar corporation. Civil filings in this state dropped over the last decade, and 60 percent of the civil trials in Colorado last year resulted in verdicts for the defense. How can judgments be raising our rates when verdicts are going down? In fact, studies by industry analysts show that the primary reason Colorado ranks fourteenth in the nation for high-priced auto insurance is the rising cost of auto repair work, not personal-injury lawsuits.
Sums up Miller, "The story is a one-sided version of events and portrays State Farm in a very negative light."
Thanks for the credit. But State Farm doesn't need our help to look bad.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.