Wednesday, 25 July 2012 18:58

Former Rhode Island Auto Body Shop Owner Wins $3.27 Million Verdict Against Insurers

Ten years ago, former Cumberland, RI auto body shop owner David F. Miller was wrongly accused of insurance fraud, and after being handcuffed and arrested in front of customers and his children, and losing his license, business and home, all charges against him were later dropped. In an ensuing six-year legal battle to clear his name, Miller finally found justice on May 29 when a Superior Court jury in Providence, RI returned a verdict against two of the country’s largest automobile insurance providers, finding that Metropolitan Property and Casualty Insurance Company (Met Life) and AMICA Mutual Insurance had acted with “malice” and “bad faith.” In finding Met Life and AMICA liable for abuse of legal process, the jury awarded Miller $3.27 million, which includes interest, compensatory damages, emotional distress, legal fees and punitive damages.

Miller is now 60 years old and battling a rare form of cancer.

According Miller’s attorney, Michael Kelly of the Law Offices of Michael A. Kelly, post-trial motions are scheduled for the end of July “and then we’ll see whether there is an appeal.”

On May 29, the jury concluded that the auto insurers acted with “wickedness” when the companies instigated the filing of criminal charges brought against Miller by the Rhode Island State Police in 2002. At the time, Miller was charged with obtaining monies under false pretenses and insurance fraud. However, all the charges against Miller were dismissed by the Office of Attorney General in 2005 when it became clear that AMICA and Met Life had helped instigate the charges, and had withheld documents that would have undermined the case against him.

Miller’s suit contended that Metropolitan and AMICA abused the legal process by withholding certain information critical in the case from the State Police and the Attorney General. The jury returned a verdict which found that Metropolitan and AMICA had both intentionally withheld vital information during the course of Miller’s criminal prosecution and that the companies were liable for an abuse of process.

“The jury found that the insurance companies withheld from the state police and the Attorney General’s Office the fact that cars were not required to be fixed in accordance with their estimate, and number two, that their appraisers were cost-shifting,” said Kelly.

“The testimony from the appraisers from both companies was that they would write for newer parts when they knew it wasn’t going to be replaced - they wrote for that part to increase the overall estimate to compensate for the low labor rates. Labor rates were fixed by the insurance company. Of course, they wouldn’t negotiate, and since they have an anti-trust exemption, they can just fix the rates, and they all had the same rates and they were all artificially low to try to either force customers to go to preferred shops and/or to try to get independent shops to become preferred shops,” Kelly continued.

“The jury specifically found that insurance companies didn’t tell the state troopers about the cost-shifting or about the fact that the cars weren’t fixed in accordance to the estimate because body shops weren’t required to. And they didn’t tell that Mr. Miller was sending documents to the insurance companies indicating he wasn’t fixing the cars in accordance to the estimate because the labor rates were too low,” Kelly said. “The jury agreed with us that had the state troopers and the Attorney General’s Office been informed of these facts, the troopers on the stand said they would have handled the case completely different.”

As far back as 20 years ago, Miller had been outspoken about what he considered unfair practices by the insurance industry. The testimony and evidence presented during the three-week trial established that Miller had been a leading advocate in the state legislature for fair reimbursement to auto body shops by insurance companies for many years. Evidence in the case proved that Miller’s advocacy led to an extremely adversarial relationship with Met Life and AMICA over several issues, including fixed labor rates paid to auto body shops in Rhode Island by insurance companies.

“I think that it is clear here that the insurance companies, Met and AMICA, went after Mr. Miller because he was pushing to change the labor rate in the legislature, and they couldn’t find anything that he was doing wrong, so they went to the state police and made scurrilous allegations that weren’t true to get the state police to do their dirty work,” Kelly said. “Unfortunately, because of the withholding of information, the state police went with their suggestion of a sting, and it is truly a tragedy for Mr. Miller. He lost everything. He lost his business, his license, his house, and everything else he owned, cars, everything. He had to transfer his auto body license to his son. His business went down approximately 70% immediately after the arrest.”

In its decision, the jury found that AMICA and Met life had acted “with such willfulness, wickedness, or recklessness that amounts to criminality, which for the good of society and warning to the defendant, ought to be punished.”

In awarding punitive damages, Kelly said it’s always unusual in the state of Rhode Island for a jury assesses punitive damages because the jury has to find conduct that is malicious, wicked and which rose to the level of criminality.

“I hope that the jury’s decision will give more individuals and small business owners who have been wronged by corporate behemoths like AMICA or Met Life the courage to keep fighting against their corrupt tactics,” said Miller after the decision. “It may have taken me years to defend my reputation, rebuild my business and prove that I did no wrong, but this verdict vindicates me. The jury’s verdict brings the real wrong-doers in this case—Met Life and AMICA—to justice,” he added.

Looking back over the past 10 years about a case that has consumed his life, Miller said he is relieved it’s finally over. “My life was in limbo. I got cancer, I went broke. I can’t count the ways it affected my life,” he said. “I want to pick up the pieces and get on with my life.”

Today, Miller’s Auto Body is run by Miller’s children, Candace and David.

 

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