Sunday, 31 August 2003 17:00

After the airbags deployed...

Written by Karyn Hendricks
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My job as associate editor of Autobody News has given me a terrible disease - TMI - too much information. It's torture! 

Setting the stage

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Rocco Avellini inspects Miata to see if repairs were done properly.
 
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With no undercoating or weld-through primer, welds are beginning to rust out.
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In November 2000, my soon-to-be-husband and I were cruising in my 1999 Miata convertible at about 35 mph down the main street of a small Colorado River town in Arizona - on the way to the wedding chapel to be married. BAMMM!! A large Chevy sedan driven by an elderly man pulled rapidly out of a shopping center parking lot and we stopped abruptly with the Miata attached to the Chevy at the left rear door.

The airbags went off - more frightening than the actual accident. At that moment I was sure that major plastic surgery was in my future, since powder and chemicals released by the airbag made my face feel like all the skin had burned off.

What a nightmarish situation! Here we were, 300 miles from our home in California, with no way to get back. After our wedding, we immediately contacted our insurance company. To complicate things further, the car that hit us was a rental, so there were two more insurance companies to deal with.

Finally, we were issued a rental car, a Dodge Neon, not equivalent to a Miata by a long shot. The next day we found out that there was more than $10,000 damage, but the car did not "total out." At that point, we chose a repair shop based on suggestions from the adjuster and word of mouth from the few people we talked to in this unfamiliar town.

In shock, away from home, and, not being familiar with the collision repair industry, we had no clue what we were entitled to from our insurance company, the rental car insurance company or the insurer of the man who hit us.

After six months (yes, six months), I returned to the Arizona town to reclaim my car. I inspected it in the parking lot, late in the afternoon, and everything looked fine. I did notice that the apron in the front of the car was still scratched up. When I questioned this, I was told that part was not damaged in the accident, so it was not in the repair plan. Out loud I wondered why they didn't call and ask me if I would authorize the repair, but the body shop manager said since we had a lawyer they couldn't call me directly. This did not leave me with a warm fuzzy feeling, but I took the car and, at long last, the incident seemed to be over.

So what's the problem?
 
As I began working at ABN, I started learning about cycle times, customer satisfaction and quality repairs. Why did it take six months to repair, when I'm reading about vehicles that go into the shop and are out in a week or ten days? And I started to notice things. There is a one-foot square strip of stone guard under the driver's door that is a totally different color from the rest of the car. (I hadn't noticed it until I got home from Arizona. What was I supposed to do when I saw that? After all, the repair shop is in Arizona and I'm not going back there.)

Could I have had my car towed to a dealership or body shop closer to my home? Shouldn't I have had a rental car for all those months that was equivalent to the car that was damaged? Where was the communication that body shops claim improves their customer satisfaction ratings? Blaming the fact that I had a lawyer was disingenuous at best. Still, even with all my new-found knowledge, there didn't seem to be anything I could do since the case had long since settled.
 
Enter Wreck Check
 
In the course of doing business, I had occasion to meet Rocco Avellini, owner of the Wreck Check franchise in San Pedro, California. A major function of Wreck Check is to inspect a vehicle after it has been repaired to verify the integrity of repairs and issue a report concerning the findings. Upon hearing my sad story, Avellini offered to re-inspect my car, even though two years had gone by since the repairs had been completed. When I questioned doing this given that I had long since signed off on the accident case, Avellini explained that if the repairs were not done properly, there is a cause of action regardless of signed releases. There is a three year period starting from the time improper repairs are found.
 

While I was irritated about the accident and the whole repair process, I didn't really expect Avellini to find poor quality repairs, but for my piece of mind this seemed like a good opportunity to have the car checked out.

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Avellini met me and inspected the car from the top and the bottom in our office parking lot. He compared the estimate of repairs with what had been completed. Just lifting the hood, he was able to show me places where the welds did not match the quality of factory welds - a subject I was familiar with from my I-CAR3000 class. Then he showed me indications that the frame was not aligned. The discolored area under the door I had overlooked when inspecting the car was in fact missing the stone guard. Armed with a flashlight and my camera, Avellini crawled under the jacked-up car to discover more poor workmanship.

Under the hood
 
Following the inspection, Avellini gave me several articles about diminished value issues detailing successful claims. Also included in the package were letters to be sent to the body shop and the insurer - a "cease and desist letter" telling the two parties not to communicate with each other regarding my case, and a second letter to inform each party that there is an action pending for the substandard repairs on my vehicle and my desire to be made whole. When questioned about the fact that the insurance company is in Wisconsin and the repair shop is in Arizona, Avellini assured me that this time the adjuster would come to me and I could insist that the repairs be done at a shop of my choosing.
 
A few days later I received the writ-ten Wreck Check Diminished Value Assessment. And here is what Avellini found: structurally poor welds, unrepaired internal damage, incomplete frame repair, mismatched paint, weld burns, lack of proper stone guard, no undercoating/rustproofing, misaligned sheetmetal, minor flaws in paint, lack of proper seam sealing and missing screws or clips. Of these, the unrepaired structural damage, structurally poor welds and incomplete frame repair present safety issues and must be repaired. The report also calls out "a possible fraud warning" regarding the lower front body tie bar. The report cites the total diminished value appraisal at $4,494.94 and post accident market value as $6,094.12.
 

Why trust Wreck Check?

Most auto body shop owners don't like to be second guessed by companies such as Wreck Check. They say that the Wreck Check inspectors are failed body shop owners, disgruntled employees, or unsuccessful technicians themselves, so I talked with Avellini about his background. He has spent over twenty years in the collision repair business, in various capacities, including as a body shop owner. Several more years were spent in the insurance business as an appraiser, adjuster and supervisor, giving him experience on both the collision repair and the insurance side.

Avellini is a Court certified expert witness, a member of CAA (having served as founding Chapter president for two years), a published author and a frequent guest on TV. In addition, he addressed the CA Senate Insurance Committee, chaired by Senator Jackie Speiers, in 1999 and is a member of the National Odometer & Title Fraud Enforcement Association. During our conversations, Avellini demonstrated his knowledgeable of consumer rights relative to autobody repair. His credentials and the information he imparted to me indicate that he knows his business well.

 
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