Thursday, 23 December 2010 17:05

Greg Coccaro ‘NOT GUILTY’ AGAIN of Fraud Charges Filed by Progressive

A six-person New York jury found Greg Coccaro, owner of North State Custom in Westchester, N.Y., not guilty (technically "not liable"—in a civil lawsuit, a person is either "liable" or "not liable") of civil insurance fraud—for the second time—on Dec. 15.

The case was originally brought by Progressive Insurance in 2005 in a dispute over the repair of a badly damaged Mercedes which was fixed at Coccaro’s Mercedes-certified shop. Progressive alleged that the shop inflated the charges to make the car a total loss, and that both the shop and the insured received payment for the vehicle’s repairs.

In 2005, the customer, a handicapped professor from Columbia University, asked Coccaro to repair her 6-month-old 2004 Mercedes E320 that she had rolled down an embankment and crashed into a pile of rocks. Progressive Insurance wrote an on-site initial estimate of $7,142. Once the car was taken to Coccaro’s shop—which was not a Progressive DRP (Coccaro has no DRPs)—he found far more damage in addition to mistakes on the original estimate. According to Coccaro, Progressive eventually wrote another estimate for $26,804, then a third one for $18,000 after a desk review reduced that second estimate, and then another. All told there were some 10 estimates done. Coccaro’s final carefully-documented invoice for the full repair came in at $34,091.

That’s when it really got interesting...

Progressive tried to recall the car from Coccaro after repairs had commenced and steer it to one of their select shops but was unsuccessful in convincing the customer. When the second estimate came in at $26,804, the customer confirmed she wanted North State to do the job, She agreed to pay any expenses beyond the $26,804. Progressive finally agreed to pay Coccaro’s invoice after the customer’s son, who had a relationship of sorts with the insurer, became involved.

At that point a curious request came from Progressive to take possession of the car so they could deliver it to the customer. Coccaro declined, preferring to deliver to his own customer, but finally agreed, with the customer’s approval. He was surprised at the cavalier manner in which the vehicle was towed by the insurer’s provider, risking throwing off the two wheel alignments that had recently been done. This would be telling when the case finally came to trial.

Progressive did not deliver the vehicle to the professor. They took it for forensic evaluation to another shop. In fact, as the court documents would later reveal, Progressive had already decided to prosecute for fraud before examining the vehicle. Progressive alleged that North State had defrauded the company; had provided phony invoices; that Coccaro himself had directed a conspiracy to defraud Progressive; and had charged the insurer for non-existent damage.

The first fraud trial was pressed by Progressive Insurance against Coccaro in Bedford Hills, NY, and was dismissed by State Supreme Court Judge Mary Smith on August 5, 2008. Significantly, the case was dismissed “with predjudice”—meaning the court barred Progressive from filing another case on the claim, effectively ending Progressive’s options—and the judge acted before the defense could call a single witness, however this ruling was successfully appealed by Progressive who argued that the judge lacked this latitude in the case.

The second defense of the case, and his acquittal in the first case, have now cost Coccaro and his shop in excess of $600,000 in legal fees, and all for a case which Progressive offered to settle for a dollar and an admission of guilt in 2005. Coccaro refused the offer, despite the fact that under New York law, even if he won, he could not be awarded any money from Progressive, nor could he recover his legal expenses. It was always a matter of principle to him.

Progressive continued to allege that Coccaro committed fraud in the repair of the Mercedes. In the prior trial, Progressive attempted to recoup over $70,000—the cost of repairs and the amount paid to total loss the car.  In the most recent trial, Progressive argued that it should be entitled to recover the entire $34,091 paid for repairs.  In both cases, however, Progressive's expert witness testified that he was only able to detect $2,808.65 of "improper" charges. Coccaro’s legal team of Michael G. Santangelo, Erica L. Eversman, and Anthony J. Mamo, Jr. estimates that Progressive ultimately spent over one million dollars to prosecute the claim of $2,800 and change.

Coccaro has said in the past, “I believe they’re out to punish me for speaking out. They want to make an example out of me for anyone else who would do the same thing.”

Coccaro still has no hard evidence to support his conclusion, but he points to the time, expense and zeal Progressive has invested in a battle that began over repairs to a single vehicle and the fact that Progressive decided to sue him for fraud before paying North State as much as a dime for the repair. He also points to what he says are other ongoing practices by insurers to intimidate shops.

“Certain shops get steered against, and the shops who speak out get business steered away from them,” he says. “I also know of certain shops who don’t get paid for certain operations because they’ve spoken up. Insurers make trouble between a shop and its customers. No customer wants to get in the middle of that.

“It’s like whack-a-mole in this industry,” he says. “You stick your head up, and they’re going to knock it down. That’s definitely what they do. They intimidate people.”

“They put me in a huge financial hole, so I’m leaving a a lawsuit for abuse of process on the table,” said Coccaro. “I am 61 years old and had to remortgage everything I owned. I’m in debt again. They don’t like people to stand up to them. They couldn’t get this car out of my shop and they were mad and wanted to teach me a lesson.”

“I am so grateful that the jury was able to see through Progressive’s tactics and didn’t fall for the fairy tale Progressive tried to tell them,” Coccaro said. “I feel exonerated,” he said. “My business and reputation mean everything to me. That’s why I insisted on fighting these false accusations.”

Coccaro has credited support from collision repairers, and especially Mike Anderson, a former shop owner now running a consulting company  (CollisionAdvice.com), who testified that the repairs to the vehicle were properly executed and that North State Custom was entitled to charge for the work that was performed.  Anderson had reinspected the car after the original repairs.

“Mike Anderson took time out of his schedule to fly here and testify and fly back and he did it for free,” Coccaro said. “He did not charge a dime. It was poignant when he pointed that out in court. I am very grateful that he did that for my family, my business and me. Not many people would do that. He put his reputation on the line testifying on my behalf, and I owe him many thanks.”

"Huge companies can put you out of business. I won the case, but all I did was exonerate myself. I think they spent over $1 million for an alleged fraud of $2,800, according to their expert witness. Yet they were suing me for $34,000, the entire amount of the bill, because they said I intentionally totaled the car.”

“This is a triumph for the entire collision repair industry,” he said. “Now insurers will know that they can’t accuse shops of fraud for making repairs according to the blueprint for repair set out in the shops’ estimates. After all, we are the repair professionals, and it is time that insurers stop interfering with how we operate our businesses.”

The jury decision leaves Coccaro free to pursue his $15 M suit against Progressive for tortious interference with his business which has been pending in New York State court, although he has not commented on that specifically. His complaint was reduced from $40M to $15M after Progressive attorneys successfully argued that NY law does not allow an insurance company to be sued for steering by a collision repairer. Nonetheless, Coccaro alleges that Progressive has engaged in a scheme to injure North State and deceive the public by engaging in deceptive business practices, including telling customers that North State inflates estimates, does shoddy work, and is a problem shop.

When Coccaro’s case became public information, the New York State Auto Collision Technicians Association (NYSACTA) was quick to support him. At the time, Mike Orso, President of NYSACTA said, “We all know the tricks and games that are being played by a majority of the insurance companies, their appraisers and adjusters. The inside information obtained in this lawsuit only confirms our suspicions...”

“It’s not about the money,” Coccaro said at the time. “It was never about the money. I just couldn’t stand by and watch them destroy my reputation and the business I worked hard to create. If they could do this to me, they could do this to anyone.”

North State was established more than 40 years ago and promotes itself as “a state-of-the-art European luxury car collision repair facility.”  Its motto is “New World Technology, Old World Craftsmanship.” The shop is certified by Mercedes Benz, Volvo and Jaguar for structural aluminum repairs along with being BMW-trained for body, paint and aluminum structural repairs.

To contribute to defraying Greg Coccaro’s staggering legal fees, please mail a check to:

North State Legal
114 Green Lane
Bedford Hills, NY  10507

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