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By: Seth Kirby
Nationally syndicated radio host Clark Howard recently targeted auto insurer Progressive in his “Clarkrageous Moment,” a segment in which he expresses his outrage over various topics. In this instance, his outrage stemmed from an auto accident in Maryland that caused the death of Kaitlynn Fisher. Ms. Fisher was insured by Progressive, and her family submitted a claim for uninsured motorist benefits under her Progressive Policy, which was not immediately paid. Mr. Howard was outraged that Progressive had the audacity to participate in a lawsuit against the at fault driver, arguing that Ms. Fisher, its own insured, was responsible for the accident. Mr. Howard came across this case because of the social media efforts of Ms. Fisher’s brother. He posted about the situation on his personal blog, and the story went viral, resulting in an outpouring of online reports and numerous mentions in various main stream media.
With condolences to the Fisher family for their loss, and putting aside the merits of the case, from a procedural standpoint, Progressive was simply exercising their rights as a UM carrier to determine who was responsible for the accident. Such a system is used in many states and often requires a judgment against the tortfeasor before a UM carrier is required to pay damages to its insured. The fact that such arguments are allowed, does not automatically shield a carrier from public backlash should their ligation decisions be challenged. Indeed, in this instance, the fact that the carrier had a legal right to argue that the accident was the fault of their insured was either overlooked by many media outlets, or buried beneath headlines like “Progressive insurance on defense after dodging paying family of a client killed in a crash.” Matthew Barakat, Chicago Sun-Times, August 17, 2012.
While it is often said that any press is good press, I doubt that applies in this situation. Not only did Progressive lose the underlying case, it has also suffered a blow in the eyes of the public. But what could have been done to stop the backlash other than avoiding the suit altogether? Insurance litigation has always required carriers to take public positions (in the form of pleadings) that are often against the financial interests of their insureds, but until recently, such lawsuits were not the subject of internet blogs and Facebook posts. In our current social media environment, it seems that the marketing impact of insurance litigation must be considered along with the merits of each case. When litigation is warranted, care must be taken to educate any interested media outlets regarding the purpose of the litigation. Of course, doing so may be easier said than done.