Tuesday, 31 July 2007 17:00

Despite innocence, you can be hanged

Written by Dick Strom

Chris and Carol Ferrante,  the former  owners of Gilbert Collision Center in Gilbert, Arizona, have had their lives turned upside down since May from a lawsuit brought against them by Infinity Insurance. (See Autobodynews,com for a profile on the collision repair shop when the Ferrante's owned it in  2002). 

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Strom

The attorney

...bringing suit on behalf of an aggressive and overzealous insurer, commences litigation to have a judge set body shop fees and prices.

Infinity Insurance was apparently through their suit trying to force the Court to set rates that certain service providers in the state could charge insurers for towing, storage and the like.

States Chris Ferrante, “They were targeting the people who had bought our shop two months previous to the suit, because of what they charged in their other shop, and those charges they had put in place at Gilbert Collision Center since buying the shop from us. A simple search of the files of the Arizona Corporation Commission, the Business Registration files of the Town of Gilbert, or the Maricopa County Department of Environmental Regulation would have shown that we were no longer the owners of Gilbert Collision Center.”

A proper search was apparently never conducted by the insurer before filing the suit and, as a result, the Ferrantes have been forced to spend thousands to defend themselves.

The insurer

…was attempting to squelch free enterprise through “Legislation from the Bench.”

Ferrante continues, “The real big issue for the collision industry is that Infinity is trying to get a court to rule on just what are fair and reasonable, or excessive, charges. They are trying to get legislation from the bench to regulate charges and fees in the collision repair business in Arizona. Historically, there is no licensing, and no regulation of fees in Arizona for the collision industry, because the legislature has refused to get involved in the past on these issues. Infinity is trying to get the court to fix prices for them because they can’t otherwise legally do it. They zeroed in on the people who bought our shop because they charge some of the highest fees for admin, storage and estimating in the Phoenix area. Infinity’s original complaint was truly ridiculous.”

The suit brought by Infinity Insurance seeks repayment for fees deemed by the

insurer to be excessive, such as $250 admin fees on total loss cars, $75 per day storage fees, re-hook fees, cleanup fees, and towing charges. But the suit is basically flawed because all of the fees being challenged are completely legally un-regulated in the state of Arizona, as there is no state law governing towing, admin or storage fees.

Chris and Carol Ferrante then filed, on May 23, an answer to the lawsuit which clearly proved that the Infinity lawsuit had targeted them in error, using records of the Arizona Corporation Commission, Maricopa County, and the Town of Gilbert as proof that the Ferrantes no longer owned the Gilbert CollisionCenter.

All of these public records were available to Infinity, if they had just looked for them, prior to the filing of their suit. The answer filed to the lawsuit also proved, with invoices and records from Gilbert Collision Center, Inc., that when the Ferrantes owned that shop, they never charged the admin fees and storage charges alleged by Infinity Insurance. The Ferrantes requested Summary Judgment against Infinity, from the Court. The other Defendants named in the suit have not yet filed their answers as of this writing.

 {mospagebreak} 

Judge throws it out

On June 25, 2007, the last day to respond, Infinity filed a “Response and No Opposition to Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment” with the court. Their response acknowledged that Ferrante’s attorney was correct in asking for Summary Judgment.  Summary Judgment was granted for the Ferrantes, but Infinity is fighting the Ferrante’s demand to be reimbursed for legal fees and court costs.

What shop owners can learn

There are lessons from the Ferrantes’ painful experience.

First, the best way a shop owner can protect himself from any accusations of unethical conduct is to be totally honest and fair in his business dealings with everyone, which the Ferrantes had been. Obviously, refusing to perform repairs for either “claimants” or “insureds” on vehicles whose costs are being covered by questionable insurers would lessen the risk of being involved in unethical, unfair accusations made by unethical insurers. Many ethical shops routinely do refuse to repair vehicles that are covered by certain insurers they feel are untrustworthy.

Chris Ferrante elaborates, “What you can do, and what has made our case for us, is to keep the most meticulous records possible, document everything, cross reference everything. For example, on your final invoice, list every detail, including license plate number, mileage in, class or source of the job, insurance involved, payment type (check, direct deposit, etc.), claim number and so forth. Doing this in conjunction with a bookkeeping system such as Quickbooks Pro that allows you to search your records by any of those fields to recover data, allowed us to determine, within a matter of minutes, that we had never done any of the jobs that Infinity had alleged we did, in their suit.

“It also allowed us to document our exact charges on the three jobs we had done that involved that insurer over a three-year period. We were able to immediately prove what our charges were, and that they were not in question. In fact, records indicated we have had an Infinity claims adjuster bring her personal vehicle to Gilbert Collision for repair. And the new owners confirm that this same Infinity adjuster brought her vehicle in again for more repairs… after they bought the shop. One of Infinity’s adjusters was our satisfied customer! That’s how ridiculous this lawsuit is.

“Document everything. Write notes on every phone call, or record them on tape if this is allowed in your state. This is especially important when past experience tells you the insurer in question is not ethical. Keep historical records that enable you to go back and prove that a company has a history of unethical ‘pattern and practice.’

“And never count on an insurer to cover you if a similar situation happens to you.

Our Garage Keepers policy, which was a great policy with Universal Underwriters, would have covered our defense even after the shop had been sold, if we had actually done that of which we were accused. However, since we never did it, it was not considered an ‘occurrence’ under the policy language, so our defense was not covered.

Our personal liability Insurance through our State Farm Homeowners policy won’t cover us because the accusations were made as a result of business activity.

Our Liability Umbrella Policy doesn’t kick in unless either our Homeowners or Garage Keepers first accepts liability. You really don’t want to print my thoughts on insurance companies in general.”

Lawsuit’s impact on the Ferrantes

“As far as the impact upon our lives and businesses is concerned,” continued Ferrante, “since May 18 of this year, we have already spent more on legal fees than most people earn in a year. We have drawn on the credit line on our home, and made other financial changes to cover those costs, all of which will sometime soon have to be repaid.

“Our plan, after selling the shop, was to continue to work in our consulting businesses until social security retirement age. But that’s not happening right now! My business, Control Consultants, LLC, is the current incarnation of a consulting business I have had for years, operating in two states and overseas. I expected to get busy immediately with consulting work for plaintiff’s attorneys here in Arizona. But as a result of this lawsuit against us, I have had a total of six hours of work in as many weeks.

“All my potential clients are being very cordial, but since that suit was filed, no one is hiring me. After all, how would it look for an attorney to tell his client that their expert witness has been publicly accused in the papers and on the internet of fraud? Whether I like it or not, Infinity has forced me into retirement. And my wife is a Certified Public Accountant: Under their ethical guidelines, any accusation of impropriety, even the false appearance of impropriety, can end a career.

“So, always keep in mind in all your dealings with insurers and customers that you don’t have to be guilty to be hanged!”

he reporter

…with a deadline to meet damages the Ferrantes’ reputations.

It is important to note  that the initial lawsuit brought against the Ferrantes by the insurer never alleged that the Ferrantes committed fraud; it simply demanded repayment of fees which the insurer deemed excessive. But when Arizona’s East Valley Tribune got wind of the case, their reporter ran a front page article accusing the Ferrantes of fraud, claiming among other things and in so many words that the Ferrantes had defrauded customers by conspiring to have police towing contractors bring cars to the shop against the owners’ wishes. The huge irony in this is that Chris Ferrante has been a witness for the sheriff in a major investigation into bid rigging and other illegal practices by towing companies.  In fact, there was no love lost between Ferrante and several towing contractors who Ferrante alleges actively steered customers away from Gilbert Collision when the he owned the shop. 

States Chris Ferrante, “The Tribune reporter never called me for comment. He apparently did call Gilbert Collision Center and was told that I no longer owned the shop, which should have given him a hint. But he never called me, even though my number is listed in the phone book. Neither did he check public records. When I confronted him on the morning after his front page article, he said, ‘I didn’t know how to reach you, and I had a deadline to meet.’ For lack of a five-minute phone call, and with the zest for headlines, he chose to take a path that would lead to destroying my, and my wife’s, unblemished reputations.”

Ferrantes file defamation suit

Gilbert Collision Center, Inc., and the Ferrantes then filed a four-count lawsuit against the East Valley Tribune and its owners for Defamation, Invasion of Privacy, Tortious Interference, and Declaratory Relief. Their suit claimed that the Tribune did not accurately report the news, rather choosing to create the sensational headlines alleging fraud, which the original lawsuit never mentioned (neither did it contain the elements of fraud). The suit also claimed that the newspaper irreparably damaged the previously unblemished reputations of Chris, a former Federal Agent in the U.S. Department of State, former police officer, and International Security Consultant, to name a few of the many prestigious positions he has held over the years.

Chris holds an earned Bachelor of Science degree in Economics, and a Master of Science degree in Management, and is a past President and Board Member of the Arizona Collision Craftsman Association (ACCA). He was a member of the Coalition for Collision Repair Excellence, held positions in the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators, and the American Society for Industrial Security. He has held security clearances in the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Energy, and is a decorated former Federal Agent for the U.S. Department of State.

His wife, Carol, a Certified Public Accountant, was a manager for an international accounting firm, and was the former owner of two CPA firms. She was an instructor for the Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and has taught Continuing Professional Education classes to others in her profession. This husband and wife are business professionals.

Only in America

Ferrante continues, “What is of interest here is that any insurance company represented by a careless attorney can make utterly baseless allegations, not supported by any regulation or state law, and ruin the lives, reputations and businesses of several business owners in both towing and collision repair, by simply filing a lawsuit and somehow allowing it to get into the hands of a sensationalist newspaper reporter, forcing us to spend thousands on legal support when we are completely innocent and don’t even belong in the law suit, if in fact the suit has any merit at all. Infinity, in attempting to get a judge to rule on just what is or is not a fair amount for towing, storage, and admin fees, a subject that the Arizona legislature has chosen not to regulate, has initiated an avalanche of problems that will entangle many others besides the insurer, newspaper, and ourselves.

“Other newspapers and internet sources, again not checking the accuracy of what Infinity and the Tribune purported, then published articles that further spread the lies. We will be filing more lawsuits against these entities before this is over.” 

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, 9270 Miller Road, NE, Bainbridge Island, Washington 98110; (206) 842-3621; e-mail: moderncol@qwest.net.

 

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