The story that Progressive Insurance defended the person "responsible" (I put this in quotes and will explain the legality further on) for the death of a policyholder is completely taking over Twitter and the news circuits following a series of blog posts, tweets, and other correspondence between Progressive Insurance and the family of the deceased, Kaitlynn Fisher, nicknamed Katie.
I have tried to learn as much about this story as possible but there are some conflicting reports. I apologize to those intimately involved with this case, in advance, for any errors or misunderstandings.
The Facts of the case
Katie Fisher, a 24 year old John Hopkins graduate, was killed in an automobile accident on June 19, 2010. The accident occurred at an intersection and an independent witness seemed to indicate that the OTHER driver ran the red light and struck Katie, thereby causing her death. That driver seems to have been insured by Nationwide. Nationwide did defend the case as they are contractually obligated to do, but quickly paid out the entire limits of their auto policy (that amount has not been disclosed). Katie, however, also maintained an UNDERINSURED auto policy. This means that if the other driver does not have enough coverage to pay for your damages (and in the case of a tragic death - no amount is enough) then your own insurance company, in this case Progressive, should cover the difference. Katie was entitled to $100,000 under this policy.
Maryland, however, has very strict "contributory negligence" statutes which hold that if you are even 1% at fault for the accident, then you are barred from recovery. Luckily, here in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, where I practice, we do not have such a strict and incomprehensible law (at least, in my humble opinion.) This law is where the trouble for Progressive began!
Progressive, like all insurance companies, does not want to pay back the money they take from policyholders. Therefore, if they could prove that Katie was even 1% at fault for this accident, then they would not have to pay her estate any of the $100k policy. So, even though the facts seemed to suggest that Katie was not at fault for this accident, and even though, Nationwide already paid the full amount of their policy limits, it was not PROVEN that the other driver was at fault for this accident and Progressive refused to volunteer payment to their policyholders estate. Instead, the estate had to file a lawsuit. And this is where the trouble for Progressive Insurance gets worse!
The attorneys for Progressive Insurance (who are most likely employees of the Company which clearly creates a conflict of interest that no one seems to acknowledge or care about) went about the case as if Katie, their insured was at fault. They called witnesses who placed negligence on Katie and gave statements to the jury arguing that Katie was at fault. This means that Katies OWN INSURANCE company was at her trial, which as a result of her tragic passing she was unable to speak for herself, trying to prove her guilt.
The jury didn't buy it and awarded the family estate over $700,000.
And this is where the proverbial **** really hit the fan!
Katie's brother, Matthew Fisher, took to his personal blog to discuss the case and what his family had been through with Progressive. The story went viral on twitter and is absolutely everywhere now. Progressive initially only made a canned response to all of the Facebook postings and re-tweets that the story presented, but made a formal explanation soon thereafter. They explained that they were within Maryland law to act as they did and that they did not "defend" their policy holders killer, because that person was defended by his insurance company, Nationwide. Matthew Fisher responded with another post describing the way Progressive tried to prove her negligence at trial and RIGHTFULLY stated that this was, in fact, a defense.
It was already too late for Progressive - the public relations nightmare is already at full tilt!
This story is not unusual. It is only unusual that it is receiving so much attention. The reason every person injured in an accident needs an experienced personal injury attorney, is because insurance companies are only out to protect their own interests. Progressive (at least in Rhode Island) is not one of the worse insurance companies out there, and I almost wish this was an Allstate case because it is perfectly fitting to the way they do business. Nevertheless, insurance companies are corporations first and foremost with an eye on the bottom line - never mistakenly believe, no matter how cute their spokesperson or mascot, that they care about you.
I believe that there is ample evidence here to support a conflict of interest on the part of Progressive Insurance. In Maryland, as in every State, an insurance company is legally obligated to act in good faith. It will be really interesting to see how this story plays out if the family pursues an action against Progressive Insurance directly. If Progressive did not act in good faith, they may be sanctioned by the State, required to pay huge fines, and may end up owing the family much more than the $100k the policy required them to pay. I think it was bad faith, I think it was a terrible business decision, and I wish the family the best of luck in their pursuits.