In June 2010, Kaitlynn Fisher was struck and killed by an underinsured driver running a red light through an intersection when she had the green. These are the kinds of circumstances that make for a pretty open and shut case in terms of who was at fault for a car accident, which means the insurance company needs to pony up the full value of the policy.
Tellingly, the other driver’s insurance company evaluated the situation and immediately paid out, readily admitting fault. Fisher held underinsured motorist coverage with Progressive insurance, so her family filed a claim, and then they found themselves falling into the insurance black hole.
Here’s the thing about insurance companies: They will go to great lengths to avoid paying claims. To the point that it’s often necessary to take the situation to court to force the insurance company to do right by the policy, which was exactly what happened in this case. Unfortunately, Kaitlynn’s family couldn’t sue Progressive itself, so they were forced to sue the other driver to prove negligence, which they hoped would oblige Progressive to settle their claim.
What happened next was one of those “only in the US” sort of things: Fisher’s brother claims that Progressive sent an attorney to represent the defense. More specifically, as he puts it, “If you are insured by Progressive, and they owe you money, they will defend your killer in court in order to not pay you your policy.”
Matt Fisher took to the Internet to talk about the situation because he was infuriated, and rightly so. In an impassioned post on Tumblr, he laid out the facts of the story as he saw them, stressing that their goal in recovering the funds was to settle Kaitlynn’s debts, and that Progressive jerked his family around when they were already in a state of immense stress. Massive insurance companies can afford to keep throwing attorneys at cases like this, waiting for families to run out of energy and funds, and that’s what Progressive was hoping would happen here.
Cut to Internet outrage, and people spreading the story like wildfire. Progressive decided that it needed to do a little damage control and so it took to Twitter with a copy-pasted roboresponse and issued a public statement, saying “To be very clear, Progressive did not serve as the attorney for the defendant in this case. He was defended by his insurance company, Nationwide.”
That’s not what Matt remembers. In fact, his memory of what must have been a harrowing trial is pretty darn clear, and he fired back with a pretty stern indictment in response to Progressive:
At the beginning of the trial on Monday, August 6th, an attorney identified himself as Jeffrey R. Moffat and stated that he worked for Progressive Advanced Insurance Company. He then sat next to the defendant. During the trial, both in and out of the courtroom, he conferred with the defendant. He gave an opening statement to the jury, in which he proposed the idea that the defendant should not be found negligent in the case. He cross-examined all of the plaintiff’s witnesses. On direct examination, he questioned all of the defense’s witnesses. He made objections on behalf of the defendant, and he was a party to the argument of all of the objections heard in the case. After all of the witnesses had been called, he stood before the jury and gave a closing argument, in which he argued that my sister was responsible for the accident that killed her, and that the jury should not decide that the defendant was negligent.
I am comfortable characterizing this as a legal defense.
That would make two of us, Matt.
Either the attorney misidentified himself, Matt misunderstood, or Progressive is lying their pants off. I’m going with option three, since Progressive was “an interested party” in the case, as detailed in the case record, “which [in this case meant] they not only assisted the defense, but acted as if they were the defense.” Look, people, when the Daily Fail is telling you you’re a dick, you’re a dick.
While the defendant also had an attorney from his insurance company present, Progressive assisted with the defense. It's normal for insurance companies to be listed as interested parties in such cases, though they aren't necessarily involved in the case itself. What's less normal is for them to apparently aggressively assist the other party, as happened here.
Insurance companies are not in the business of being nice. Their goal is to avoid paying claims at all costs in order to cut down on expenses, and this kind of behavior is par for the course when it comes to handling any and all claims above a certain amount. Progressive’s response to the original claim and subsequent behavior in court isn’t surprising, and I can guarantee you that similar cases are unfolding across the United States right now, you’re just not hearing about them because family members aren’t speaking out or don’t have the platform that Matt Fisher does.
The company is, however, massively showing its ass here by straight-up lying about the circumstances of the case in an attempt to deflect criticism, and holding its ground with an automated Twitter response as though that’s going to appease people who are understandably upset about the situation. What Kaitlynn Fisher’s case highlights is the drastic need for true insurance reform in the United States, and along the way, it also encapsulates the growing student debt crisis.
Fisher’s family wouldn’t have to fight so hard for this money if she didn’t have substantial student loans that still needed to be paid off. Student debt is exploding in the United States, and like many young people across the country, Fisher never expected to leave her family with that level of debt, but she still tried to plan ahead financially by choosing an insurance product that was right for her needs. All she got for her forward thinking was the comfort of knowing her insurance company defended the driver who killed her in court, simply to avoid paying the claim on the insurance policy she bought and maintained for just such an occasion.