Don't be too quick to accept insurance companies' offers

If your vehicle is in a wreck that's not your fault but you think the insurance company representing the party responsible isn't offering enough to cover the damage, what do you do?

That's the situation Tommy Johns says he is facing after an employee at an area car dealership wrecked his car in a test ride.

The car is totaled.

Johns said he didn't want to file the claim with his own insurer because his rates would have gone up and he has other claims that he believes he is entitled to but couldn't get through his policy.

He estimates his car was worth $75,000 before the wreck.

The dealership's insurer has offered a lot less, he says, although Johns' lawyer declines to give numbers because the case is in litigation.

Kelley Blue Book estimates that a certified pre-owned car of that make and model in excellent condition with a number of added features is valued at about $53,000. In a lawsuit, Johns puts the value at about $60,000.

Critics say insurance companies offer initial low settlements and hope they will be accepted.

Often, people don't know they can get reimbursed for additional out-of-pocket expenses and other claims.

"He had a pristine car, and even if it's fixed, it's no longer worth" its original value, argues his lawyer, Lisa K. Vaughn of Fort Worth.

Johns, an Iraqi war veteran who did three tours of combat duty in the Marines, says he saved his hazardous-pay earnings to buy the car of his dreams, a silver 2007 BMW M5. He babied the car the past three years and made many improvements.

In August, he took it to a dealership to get his brake fluid and oil changed.

After the employee wrecked it, the dealership turned the claim over to its insurance company, Liberty Mutual.

The insurer eventually declared that the car was totaled.

Liberty Mutual officials would not comment.

Johns sued the dealership, which holds the insurance policy.

He says he is out the cost of the repair, the loss of the vehicle itself, storage fees and attorney fees. Under Texas law, he's entitled to ask for triple damages, and his lawyer plans to do that, too.

"Since Day One, this whole thing has been an incredibly stressful experience," Johns said.

Because of the lawsuit, dealership officials declined to comment, but in a court response, a lawyer for the dealership denied some of the lawsuit's claims.

Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog in California, said insurance companies generally start with a low offer.

"They know a percentage of the people with claims will accept the first offer. Another percentage will take the second offer. Only a small percentage will go all the way and fight for what is their due."

He continues, "The harder you fight, the more likely you are to get closer to the company paying you what you're due. But so many people -- especially a working person who can't wait around for two years for some legal battle to go on -- don't want to fight. They need a car to get to work, and they accept the low-ball offer eventually."

But Sandra Helin, spokeswoman for Southwestern Insurance Information Service in Austin, a trade association representing many insurance companies, said low-balling is not an industry practice. While she declined to talk about the specific case, she said most companies pay what is covered by the policy limits. "The insurance companies want to make things right," she said.

In some insurance claim disputes, an alternative to the courtroom could be to file a complaint with the Texas Department of Insurance.

The agency says it received 276 complaints that it deemed justified last year in which insurance parties involved in third-party claims tried to low-ball consumers with unsatisfactory settlement offers.

The agency says its involvement in these cases helped collect $700,000 more for Texans last year than insurance companies had initially offered.

That's a small percentage of the more than $40 million the state agency collected in all areas of insurance after it received and investigated complaints.

Texas regulators say that in each of the past two years, they received only one complaint against Liberty Mutual's auto insurance program that turned out to be justified.

Also note that Texas law prohibits insurers from delaying payment of a claim to pressure consumers to sign a release, state regulators say.

If consumers believe that an insurance company has delayed payment, they should file a complaint with the state insurance department.

Vaughn, lawyer for the former Marine, says car owners have rights, but they have to stand up for them.

Sometimes court is the only answer, she says, adding: "If you have an Aston Martin that they wrecked, they don't get to give you a Ford Fiesta."

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830

Twitter @DaveLieber