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Bad news for Texas insurance companies is good news for you

When it comes to paying claims, Texas insurance companies had "the last line of defense in their legal toolbox" taken away from them last month by Insurance Commissioner Mike Geeslin.

That's the explanation from a Geeslin aide, who said insurance companies have depended on what's called the discretionary clause in disability, health and life insurance policies. The clause gave them complete authority over how much they should pay to settle claims.

The commissioner has issued a rule that discretionary clauses must be removed from Texas policies this year (disability policies by Feb. 1 and health and life by June 1). Companies that write the policies can no longer be the sole authority on what they must pay.

Critics had cited the clauses as a conflict of interest. Geeslin writes in the rule change, "Discretionary clauses are unjust, encourage misrepresentation and are deceptive because they mislead consumers regarding the terms of the coverage."

Texas courts have ruled that policies should tilt in favor of the insured, not the company handling a claim. But discretionary clauses allowed companies to have a stronger hand.

Consumers have a better chance now when they complain to regulators or sue in court, state insurance officials say.

Insurance industry officials say they worry that insurance costs will go up and more consumers will file lawsuits.

The move was prompted by Public Insurance Counsel Deeia Beck, whose job is to advocate on behalf of Texas consumers. Looks like she did.

Brother indicted

One of the two ex-convict brothers under investigation by the Tarrant County district attorney's office in a foundation repair deal that cost an elderly man $19,000 has been indicted in another county.

A Parker County grand jury indicted Billey Ray Burdick, 46, of Azle in December on suspicion of possession of a controlled substance, according to the Springtown Epigraph.

The charge is a state felony that could send Burdick back to prison for the rest of his life. Burdick received a life sentence in 1993 after burglary and forgery convictions and an earlier car theft conviction. He was released in 2008 on lifetime parole.

Burdick took payment of two checks made out to him on behalf of his brother, Hubert Burdick, in a foundation repair job that was never completed. Billey Ray Burdick told me last year that he has no involvement in his brother's work.

Mike Holmes of HGTV's Holmes on Holmes show worked with The Watchdog and area companies to repair the man's foundation for free.

Restitution welcome

I didn't win the Mega Millions drawing this week, but I won something else. Thank you LifeLock, my former identity theft protection service, for my $10.87 restitution check. The 10-spot arrived in the mail as part of the company's legal settlement after a joint investigation by the Federal Trade Commission and 35 state attorneys general. I received my little check as part of an $11 million settlement.

LifeLock "unlawfully exaggerated its range of services and ability to prevent ID theft," according to last year's settlement.

Liens never die

With my strong advocacy of small-claims-court lawsuits, people often remind me that it's difficult to get paid. Judgments are sometimes ignored. But I respond with a story from Marvin Chosky of Bedford.

More than 30 years ago, Chosky won a small-claims judgment against a bank that had promised him money if he opened an account. But the bank never paid. After the court victory, Chosky's lawyer filed the judgment as a lien against the bank's building.

Fifteen years later, the bank wanted to sell the building but couldn't because of the lien. "We got letters saying we were holding up a multibillion-dollar deal," Chosky says. "We settled for $100 plus interest plus lawyer fees and a letter of apology."

Check it out

I reported last month about gray-market electronics such as cameras that sell for lower prices but don't come with a U.S. warranty. Cleburne photographer Matt Snider recommends two websites for checking the credibility of camera and electronics resellers.

They are www.sellerratings.com, which offers shoppers' experience with online stores, and the discussion forums on www.photo.net, where photo experts are always available. Thanks, Matt.

Working it

Kudos to Jacqueline Killebrew of Fort Worth for taking my Watchdog Nation advice seriously. She methodically worked her problem with DirecTV.

"I went on DirecTV's website looking for the biggest dog I could find," she says. "I sent an e-mail to Ellen Filipiak, the executive senior vice president of customer care. Within an hour, I received a call back from the corporate offices. My money was returned back on my credit card within 24 hours. Phew."

She praises the DirecTV executive for reading her e-mails and acting on them. Once she discovered Filipiak's name and title, she only had to type "Ellen Filipiak DirecTV email" into a search engine, and the address came up in several consumer forums.

Now that's what I'm talkin' about.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043

Twitter @DaveLieber

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