Progressive insurance on defense after court case

Associated Press

McLEAN, Va. (AP) — The Progressive Corp. insurance group is defending itself against an onslaught of negative publicity after it tried to avoid paying $75,000 to the family of a client killed in a car crash and sought to blame the wreck on her.

The criticism began Monday with a blog post from 33-year-old Matt Fisher of Brooklyn, whose sister Kaitlynn Fisher had Progressive insurance and was killed in a June 2010 car crash in Baltimore. In order to avoid the payout to Kaitlynn Fisher's family, Progressive interjected itself into a lawsuit the Fisher family filed against the other driver.

Last week, a jury found the other driver negligent, despite Progressive's efforts to persuade the jury otherwise.

Matt Fisher said Thursday that the deluge of online support his family has received is gratifying. The backlash against Progressive was strong enough that the Ohio-based company felt compelled to issue a public statement on the case. The statement denied Progressive was representing the driver who was ultimately found negligent. And it prompted even further backlash because it failed to acknowledge that, as a practical matter, Progressive's lawyer was indeed working in court as a third party to combat the Fisher family's claims.

While Fisher didn't quite anticipate the wave of support he received, he was sure others who learned about the case would be as shocked as he was that his sister's own insurance company was going to such lengths to cast the blame on her for the accident.

The Fisher family's lawyer, Annapolis, Md.-based attorney Allen Cohen, said it is technically true that Progressive was not representing the driver who caused the crash. During the trial, though, Progressive's attorney coordinated with the defense and put on witnesses who tried to undermine Kaitlynn Fisher's case, Cohen said.

According to Cohen, it's not necessarily unusual for an insurance company to go into court as an adversary of its client. But Cohen said it was unusual and wrong in this case because he believed that Progressive had ample reason to believe Kaitlynn was the victim, as well as a legal obligation of good faith toward its client. An independent witness at the scene testified that the other driver, Ronald K. Hope III of Baltimore, ran a red light and caused the accident. Even Hope's insurer, Nationwide, also did not dispute that Hope was at fault and paid $25,000, the limit of its coverage, to the Fisher family.

Kaitlynn Fisher's policy covered the actions of an uninsured or underinsured driver that caused injury or death up to $100,000. Because Nationwide had paid $25,000, the Fishers believed they were due $75,000 from Progressive. The company refused to acknowledge that Hope was at fault because if the crash was Kaitlynn Fisher's fault, it would not have to pay the $75,000. The Fisher family then sued, hoping that Progressive would have to make good on its policy if a jury found Hope negligent, Cohen said.

Instead, Progressive chose to believe the testimony of a passenger in Kaitlynn Fisher's car, who suffered brain damage in the accident and was unable to give a statement until two months later. Cohen said that woman testified Kaitlynn Fisher was at fault, but suffered memory problems and other injuries that made her testimony unreliable.

A Progressive spokesman, Jeff Sibel, said the company respects the jury's decision.

"This was a complex case, and we felt at the time we had fulfilled our obligations, and that's why we represented ourselves in court," Sibel said.

As for the online backlash, Sibel said "we're always concerned with what our customers think" and that Progressive is now committed to resolving the situation with the Fisher family.

Cohen said he does not anticipate a problem now collecting the $75,000 payment from Progressive. But he said he is considering filing a complaint with the Maryland insurance commissioner that, if upheld, would require a larger payment.

Matt Fisher, meanwhile, said that while the legal victory is important, it has also been an unnecessary distraction for a grieving family.

"The thing I would like more than anything to be talking about is how much I loved my sister," he said.

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