Lobbying, Finger Pointing, and Public Safety

By Ian Aikens | November 22, 2019

A recent letter to the editor in a local paper sparked my interest.  It concerned HB664, which would have mandated that “No insurance company, agent, or adjuster shall knowingly fail to pay a claim to the claimant or repairer (my emphasis) to the extent the claimant’s vehicle is repaired in conformance with applicable manufacturer’s procedures.”  The writer of the letter complained bitterly about the governor’s veto of this particular bill because it undercut support for “your local auto body shop.”  In other words, it is the job of government to “help” businesses and make sure they “survive.”

No, not really.  The last time I checked the federal and state constitutions, there was nothing in there about helping businesses and guaranteeing their survival.  I don’t always agree with the governor’s decisions, but in this case, he was right in butting out of this issue.  Forcing insurance companies to pay for steps in the repairing process that they deem unnecessary is an intrusion and would only increase insurance costs to consumers.  So, who cares if consumers pay more for car insurance?

Certainly not the hordes of repair shop owners and employees and related repair shop associations that made it a point to lobby in Concord earlier this year in support of the bill. In hours of testimony before legislators, they complained in earnest that they were unfairly getting stuck paying for repairs that were necessary for safety that the insurance companies wouldn’t pay. In other words, greedy BIG INSURANCE was squeezing out little repair shops and not reimbursing them for important repair-related steps that manufacturers deemed necessary for safety. Thus, this David vs. Goliath battle waged at the State House all centers on consumer safety.

Or does it? Let’s look at the big legal case cited the most as the basis for the necessity of HB664. It is Seebachan v. John Eagle Collision Center and came out of Texas. In this tragic car crash, a couple was trapped in their 2010 Honda Fit after being hit by another car, and they suffered severe injuries because the roof collapsed. The roof had been repaired earlier from damage due to hail, and the manufacturer’s procedures spelled out that the roof was supposed to be welded back together, but John Eagle Collision Center used adhesive bonding instead. In sworn testimony in court, a John Eagle Collision Center manager implied that it was due to pressure from the insurance company that corners were cut.  In other words, finger pointing.

A good ambulance-chasing lawyer will never waste a good opportunity to go after BIG _______ (fill in the blank: BUSINESS, CORPORATIONS, TECH, OIL, TOBACCO, PHARMA, INSURANCE, SODA, etc.), so after the Seebachan’s won their $31.5 million lawsuit against John Eagle Collision Center, their lawyer wasted no time in filing suit against State Farm on behalf of the plaintiffs. Had there been any merit to John Eagle Collision Center’s allegations against such big pockets, you would have heard about it. As it turned out though, the lawsuit was withdrawn, and both sides agreed to pay their own legal costs. So, in fact the big case cited as “proof” that “There ought to be a law” was an instance where a repair shop that had been I-CAR certified in proper repairs failed miserably in its obligation to its customer (the Seebachan’s). Ironically, it was these same businesses (repair shops) lobbying against BIG INSURANCE that were nevertheless lobbying now for BIG GOVERNMENT. But I guess it’s different when the government will help your business.

The first question that comes to mind is why any insurance company would take a chance on being responsible for sending unsafe cars back on the road when it could be held liable for any damages, deaths, or injuries that might occur. Of course, as the narrative goes, BIG INSURANCE is only out for BIG PROFITS, but where would the profits be if your company has to pay out millions in claims? This doesn’t make sound business sense. In fact, cost cutting to the point of sacrificing safety would make poor economic sense precisely because it would lead to BIG EXPENSES, not profits.

But let’s suppose for argument’s sake that an insurance company behaves foolishly and refuses to pay for repairs the manufacturer recommends that are safety-related. What can and should be done? The bill’s proponents have one simple solution: mandate the repair and make the insurance company pay for it, whether it likes it or not. A better solution of how the free market would (and does) correct the situation actually came from one of the comments I read from a repair shop employee who was very critical of insurance companies. She remarked that when her repair shop informed the car’s owner that their insurance company refused to pay for repairs the shop felt were necessary, the consumer took issue with their insurance company and sometimes changed insurance companies after the incident. Thus, unscrupulous and non-profit minded insurance companies would lose business, and if they do this often enough to their customers, they’d soon run out of customers and go out of business.

This clarifies the proper relationship between the three parties. The consumer pays a premium to his/her insurance company to restore their car back to its former state after an accident, and the insurance company fulfills its obligations by paying for repairs following an accident. The contract is between the consumer and his/her insurance company. The only proper role for the repair shop is to follow generally accepted repair standards and repair the car—not to race to the State House to rally for more laws on the books, which by the way would absolutely guarantee more revenue for repair shops. If the insurance company is unwilling to pay for repairs the shop deems necessary for safety, it should simply refuse to do the job—or at the very least inform the consumer what repairs it recommends and then let the consumer decide how to proceed. As the lady from the repair shop who complained bitterly about the insurance companies noted, consumers when informed are not shy about taking matters in their own hands and don’t need BIG GOVERNMENT to protect them like children.

By the way, a footnote to the vetoed bill says, “The (Insurance) Department is unable to predict the volume of additional queries and complaints, but believes it could be large enough to require an additional staff position.” So, between the vagueness of some of the language in the bill and the eagerness of repair shops to secure as many repairs as possible, that’s a virtual guarantee of yet another useless government bureaucrat with which taxpayers would be forever burdened.

I also checked how Milton’s reps voted on this bill. Sadly, Senator Bradley was a co-sponsor of the bill, but fortunately Abigail Rooney and Peter Hayward voted against it. The next legislative session is just around the corner, and you can be sure we haven’t heard the last of this bill. Pressuring politicians to pass a mandate and guarantee more business in the name of “public safety” never goes of style.

References:

Court Listener. (2018, October 3). In the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas Sherman Division: Seebachan v. State Farm. Retrieved from https://www.courtlistener.com/recap/gov.uscourts.txed.178606/gov.uscourts.txed.178606.16.0.pdf

Legiscan. (2019, September 18). NH HB 664. Retrieved from  legiscan.com/NH/bill/HB664/2019

Manchester Union Leader. (2019, August 30). Your Turn, NH – John Elias:  Hijacking consumer protection. Retrieved from https://www.unionleader.com/opinion/columnists/your-turn-nh—john-elias-hijacking-consumer-protection/article_e8580f94-fb5e-5039-8e63-b3f43ead0393.html

NH Governor. (2019, August 15). Governor’s Veto Message Regarding House Bill 664. Retrieved from https://www.governor.nh.gov/news-media/press-2019/documents/hb-664-veto-message.pdf

Repairer Driven News. (2017, August 23). Update:  Couple in $1M Texas body shop lawsuit drop case against State Farm – but only temporarily. Retrieved from https://www.repairerdrivennews.com/2017/08/23/seebachans-drop-case-against-state-farm/

Repairer Driven News. (2019, September 5). AASP, ASA, SCRS respond to N.H. insurance commissioner’s op-ed. Retrieved from https://www.repairerdrivennews.com/2019/09/05/aasp-asa-scrs-respond-to-n-h-insurance-commissioners-op-ed/

Repairer Driven News. (2019, September 19). N.H. Legislature fails to override Sununu veto of OEM auto repair procedures bill. Retrieved from https://www.repairerdrivennews.com/2019/09/19/n-h-legislature-fails-to-override-sununu-veto-of-oem-repair-procedures-bill/

Repairer Driven News. (2019, September 20). Insurers skip required test to help consumers, and other arguments made against N.H. OEM procedures bill. Retrieved from https://www.repairerdrivennews.com/2019/09/20/n-h-veto-supporter-insurers-skip-required-oem-tests-to-save-cars-from-totaling/

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