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Getting Dinged

Auto-body shop owners accuse insurers of steering customers wrong

By Joy Lanzendorfer

For nearly two years, Gene Crozat has been blowing the whistle on crooked insurance companies, and now it looks like someone is finally paying attention. The owner of G&C AutoBody, with three stores in Sonoma County, has been steadily complaining about insurers steering customers away from shops of their choice or refusing to pay all of their repair bill.

In fact, he has been involved in almost 800 complaints to the California Department of Insurance. He also assisted customers in filing 250 cases in small claims court against insurance companies, winning all but 16. As a direct result of his actions, the GEICO car insurance company has been ordered to appear in a hearing in front of the Department of Insurance on March 15 to answer allegations.

And that's just the beginning. Crozat is bringing the industry's problems out into the open. "Every industry has its dirty laundry," he says. "Right now you are getting into the auto-body industry's dirty laundry."

The problem is the practice of "steering," which was made illegal in California in 2003. Steering is when an insurance company states that its policies will only cover work done at specific shops. Insurers often have contracts with auto-body shops where, in exchange for a regular flow of business, the shop agrees to comply with specific stipulations, including a lower hourly labor rate.

When a customer goes to a contracted shop, the repairs cost less for the insurance company. But what's good for the insurance company isn't always good for the customer, says Todd Bishop, owner of Dibble's Collision Works and president of the Redwood Empire Chapter of the Auto Body Association. "What consumers don't realize is that shops that have contracts with insurance companies have to repair a vehicle according to how the contract says to do it, regardless of the quality," he says.

While many companies stopped the practice of steering after it became illegal, some claim the practice is still going on, just in a more understated way.

"If you want to come to G&C AutoBody and the insurance company says, 'No, we won't work with them,' that's direct steering," says Crozat. "But there are more subtle forms of steering. They are always trying to circumvent the consumer."

An insurance company might try to talk a client out of doing work with a particular shop, saying it can't guarantee the work done there. Or it may refuse to pay all of a bill, saying that if a customer wants to go to that shop, he or she has to pay the difference out of pocket.

All Crozat's complaints and lawsuits culminated last November, when he and several other auto-body shop owners, including Bishop and Mike Blake of Blake's Auto Body Shop, spoke at the California Senate's Banking, Finance and Insurance Committee. There, they had a chance to talk about the steering they had witnessed in their own shops.

Although several insurance companies may be steering customers, GEICO's name came up so much that committee head Sen. Jackie Speier ordered the insurance giant to appear before the Department of Insurance next month. There, GEICO will have to answer the complaints of 12 witnesses who say that the company would only pay a labor rate of $75 an hour when the shop of the customer's choice charged $83 to $86 an hour.

"GEICO stated that their refusal to pay the shop's rate was based on the belief that the shop's rates exceed the generally accepted labor rates," according to the complaints. GEICO representative Christine Tasher says that she can't comment on the allegations, adding that "nobody is directed to any particular auto-body shop. Customers have a choice."

At the bottom of all this is a dispute over what exactly is the labor rate for auto-body repair in Sonoma County. GEICO claims it's between $74 and $75 an hour. While Dibble's charges $89 an hour and G&C charges $86 an hour, calls to five random auto body shops all came up with a different--but same--labor rate: $80 an hour.

At the hearing in November, Sen. Speier praised Crozat, saying that his tenacity in helping consumers file complaints and lawsuits was unusual. Most shop owners aren't willing to stick their necks out that far.

"There is a whole sea of auto-body shop owners out there who are fearful of coming forward, because they will be blackballed [by insurance companies]," Speier says. "They will lose business, and they can't afford it."

Crozat has already felt some retaliation from GEICO, which he claims is trying to turn customers away from G&C. One witness, William Chapin, wrote in his statement to the Department of Insurance that a GEICO representative said they had "lots of problems" with G&C.

"[The representative] said we will recommend anybody but G&C AutoBody," Chapin wrote. "I really felt that he was trying everything in his power to not have me go to G&C." This is the sort of thing that some auto-body shop owners are afraid will happen to them if they speak out. But Crozat says he is willing to stand up for principle.

"Imagine if a health insurance company said you had to pay the difference out of your own pocket if you wanted to go to a doctor of your choice," he says. "That's what's going on here. It happens all the time. One out of three people who get into a wreck go through this, and it needs to stop."

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From the February 22-28, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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