Facing an onslaught of online hostility, the Progressive Corp. insurance group Thursday agreed to a settlement with the family of Kaitlynn Fisher, a deceased policyholder, but only after the family complained that the company was siding with the driver who was found responsible for killing the young Baltimore woman in a car accident -- to avoid paying her claim.
Last week, a jury found the other driver negligent, despite what critics and the Fisher family said were Progressive's efforts to persuade the jury otherwise.
The online firestorm started when Fisher's brother, Matt Fisher, 33, wrote a blog post with the headline: "My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer In Court."
"If you are insured by Progressive and they owe you money, they will defend your killer in court in order to not pay you your policy," Mr. Fisher said in the blog.
The Ohio-based Progressive, best known for its ubiquitous advertising campaigns featuring the sales clerk Flo, tried to fight the mounting outrage sparked by the story, rejecting at one point claims it had taken the defendant's side against Kaitlynn Fisher in court, but on Thursday the two sides said they had reached a settlement.
"As of this morning, an agreement has been reached with the Fisher family to settle the claim," the company said in a latest statement. "Prior to that, we were cautious with our responses, but now that the agreement has been reached, we'd like to further clarify Progressive's role in the trial."
But it may be too little, too late for Progressive. Even by following the letter of the law, the company's approach angered people across the country.
"Whether or not Progressive is guilty on this one, car accident attorneys in Maryland might have an easier time dealing with Progressive in the short term," said Ronald V. Miller Jr., a personal injury lawyer, in a post for the Maryland Injury Lawyer Blog. "Even if Progressive has been falsely accused here, they may go out of their way to make sure that the wrong perception about the company isn't reinforced or perpetuated by setting themselves up again for another public-relations disaster with stupid settlement offers in serious injury or death cases."
Kaitlynn Fisher, who was insured by Progressive, was killed during a 2010 car accident in Baltimore, when the other driver ran a red light. She was 24.
Nationwide, the other driver's insurance company, immediately settled with her family, but the other driver was underinsured, so they only received $25,000. Kaitlynn Fisher's policy covered the actions of an uninsured or underinsured driver that caused injury or death up to $100,000, and the Fishers believed they were due $75,000 from Progressive.
Progressive at first initially refused to make good on Kaitlynn Fisher's insurance policy.
After later making several failed attempts to settle, Progressive decided that the courts should resolve the matter. At question, was who was responsible for the accident.
The company at one point explained that, "There were conflicting eyewitness accounts as to who was at fault."
In Maryland, transportation and insurance law states that if a driver is just 1 percent or more responsible for the accident, their insurance company does not have to pay them or their family -- even if the other driver was 99 percent at fault.
Because of the conflicting accounts, Progressive was not legally obligated to pay out if there was a chance Kaitlynn Fisher could have prevented the accident.
"In order to receive the benefits of an underinsured driver claim, the other driver must be at fault," Progressive said. "Sometimes this can be proven without the need for a trial, but in Ms. Fisher's case, there were credible conflicting eyewitness accounts as to who was at fault."
But, in Maryland, an insurance company cannot be sued to force it to pay. So, instead, the family had to sue the driver in civil court to prove he was entirely responsible for the accident. Then, they could turn around and persuade Progressive to pay.
But, to make matters worse, Progressive sent an attorney to the trial, a lawyer Mr. Fisher in his blog post contended was working against the interests of his late sister. Progressive responded by saying it did not defend the other driver.
"Progressive did not serve as the attorney for the defendant in this case," the company said, pointing out that the other driver was defended by his own insurer, Nationwide.
But Mr. Fisher offered a detailed explanation online of Progressive's involvement, saying the company's attorney did everything from sitting next to the other driver to conferring with him and questioning witnesses to making opening and closing statements.
Progressive now says that it was considered a defendant in the lawsuit, so it did send one of its lawyers to represent itself. But, technically, the lawyer wasn't representing the other driver.
"As a defendant in this case, Progressive participated in the trial procedures on our own behalf while Nationwide represented the other driver," the company explained.
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