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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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October 31, 2007 3:51 PM

Ethel Adams and her insurance company

Posted by David Postman

Regular readers of the Times may remember Ethel Adams. Danny Westneat wrote about her here, here, here, and here. Adams was seriously injured when she was hit by, as Westneat wrote, "a crazed man named Michael Testa, who was trying to run his girlfriend's truck off the road."

Farmers decided the policies covering Adams didn't apply to anything Testa did because he caused the five-car pileup on purpose. Essentially Farmers said it was not an accident, even for Adams, who was just passing by.

Now Ms. Adams is part of a political campaign. The trial lawyers backing Referendum 67 have a new TV ad running that features Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler talking about Adams and her battle with Farmers Insurance.

"She was an innocent driver severely injured by a road-rage incident. She was in a coma and disabled for life.

"But her insurance company still denied her claim.

"That's why we need R-67: to make it illegal to deny legitimate claims."

The Reject 67 campaign — funded by the insurance industry — says the ad is deceptive. The campaign spokeswoman, Dana Childers, put out a press release that makes Ethel Adams' case sound like an example of a responsive and good-hearted insurance company at work, not a cold, corporate Grinch.

Childers reminds voters that Ethel Adams received the full benefits of her insurance policy. Ambiguities in the law complicated delivery of her policy coverage, but once the facts were revealed, coverage was promptly provided.

Not exactly. It took several columns by Danny, TV coverage and a lot of talk radio outrage to get Farmers to reconsider. And even then it was likely a direct threat from Kreidler to pull the company's license to do business in Washington state that got Adams her money.

It is unclear whether the law at stake in R-67 would cover a case with the same circumstances as Adams'. Part of her claim had been rejected, but another was technically still open.

But there is no question that the case should not be held up as example of some eleemosynary act by Farmers.

Farmers itself took a similar approach when it gave in and paid Adams. Westneat wrote then about how the company claimed it had been "diligent in the actions it has taken to respond to this claim since the beginning." And it was clear that some Farmers' employees weren't proud of their company.

Eight local Farmers agents and administrators called or wrote me, all expressing disgust at the company's handling of the case. Some said they are typically proud of their work and were feeling demoralized.

I asked Danny what he thought about Childer's statementthe ad. He said it was a bit of revisionist history. And he shared with me some e-mail between him and Childers. Danny wrote first:

Wow. I have seen a lot of spin in my day, but that one just about takes the cake. ... Coverage was only "promptly provided" after Farmers had the hell beaten out of it in the newspaper and on radio and after Kreidler threatened to pull their license to do business in the state.

We could also go over all the e-mails I have from Farmers Insurance's own employees decrying the actions of their company in that case. If you want.

Childers responded, in part:

The technical glitch with the law is what brought on the language regarding Mr. Testa; nothing more, nothing less. And it's critical to remember shortly after the accident, Ms. Adams was assured of $2 million of coverage that was available to her. This situation was so unique and troubling for all concerned that the insurance industry and the Insurance Commissioner worked with the legislature to pass "Ethel's law" that changed the law to allow coverage in these kinds of situations.

And Westneat, showing some frustration and conceding the issue was bugging him:

It is absolutely not true that "shortly after the accident, Ms. Adams was assured of $2 million of coverage." She was hit in March, and in October, the company still hadn't paid her a penny and had only denied parts of the claim. It was also in October that a Farmers attorney said this, to me: "Liability insurance is only for accidents, and this wasn't an accident." Does that sound like a company that is assuring anyone of coverage? No, it is a company that is denying coverage.

And that makes the case a better model for the trial lawyers backing R-67 then the insurance industry hoping voters repeal the law next week.

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