Apr. 9th, 2013

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Originally posted at http://www.lupinia.eu/cars/geico.htm

Almost three years ago, I switched my car insurance from a local agent in my hometown to Geico. In the process, I saved almost 75% on my insurance premiums, which would normally be one of Geico's much-applauded success stories. And for most of the time I've been with them, they've been great. Until I had a claim to file.

The short version of this story is that for a solid month, I've been pleading with Geico over some of the damage caused by an incident that happened in February, disputing their insistance that some of the damage caused in the incident was pre-existing, when I had photographic evidence showing it was not. In that month, I've been called a liar, called unobservant and ignorant, and when I wouldn't back down from the truth, subtly accused of fraud. I take these allegations very seriously, as someone who proudly works for a government agency dedicated to investigating fraud; it's not in my character to make an untrue claim for personal gain, and even if it were, no sane person would jeopardize their entire career over something like this. Additionally, when I presented evidence and witnesses, they were ignored and dismissed, in favor of provably-false anecdotal assumptions, the sort of thing I thought I'd left behind when I moved to a real city. All the while, I was without a car for a solid month, and while that didn't affect my ability to perform my job, it did interfere with my spring travel plans considerably.

In the end, I've withdrawn my dispute over the claim, because I'm so tired of fighting, and this battle has brought me to tears numerous times, due to stress and anxiety. But I will never back down from the truth, and I will never forget what happened. If you're currently a Geico customer, or are considering switching to them, I highly recommend reading this; there are no guarantees that this will happen to you, but if they feel the need to treat a customer the way they treated me, they deserve for the world to know about it.

The Incident


I purchased a 2009 Audi TT on February 8, 2013. I took it to the Mr. Wash Car Wash in Merrifield, VA on February 9, 2013, less than 24 hours after purchasing it, because I wanted to do a photoshoot with the car and it had picked up a few water spots from the light rain I drove through to get it home. Unfortunately, this car wash was a violent one. It shook the entire car, brushes seemed to be out of alignment, and at some point in the wash process, the front license plate was physically ripped from the bumper, stripping the license plate screw holes. Upon returning home, to my usual spot in the parking garage at my apartment building, the harsh overhead lights illuminated spots on the hood that were previously not present. Examining them led me to discover that the entire car, front to back, was completely covered in scratches and chips, none of which were previously present, much of it on the nose of the car. Since the paint was mirror-perfect and in original showroom condition when I bought the car, naturally I was upset. The car wash manager initially didn't want to listen, until I pointed out that when I pulled up the second time, one of his employees inside the wash bay was holding my forcibly-removed front license plate. A report was taken, but the car wash's head office insisted that the car wash is "brushless" (it's not), so I turned to Geico for assistance, since that's what they're supposed to exist for.

Before | After

The Claim


On February 12, I contacted Geico, opened a claim, and gave my statement. At first, they sounded exceptionally helpful; it definitely wasn't my fault, and they'd take care of going after the car wash to recover costs, which is exactly what I hoped for and expected. The prospect of going to court myself wasn't very appealing, and Geico can afford better lawyers than I can. We scheduled an appointment for a preliminary estimate with a Geico adjuster, and that's where things started going south.

The Geico adjuster examined the car, and pointed out a number of areas that looked pre-existing, including the severe chips on the hood. I pointed out that I had photo evidence proving they weren't pre-existing, an estimate was written, and I went on my way. When I spoke to the liability adjuster, who was the only person in this entire process who actually listened to what I had to say and tried to be the slightest bit helpful, he looked at my photos and said there would be no issue including the hood chips in the repairs, the evidence was very clear-cut. Trusting him, I scheduled the repairs at the best body shop I could find in the DC metro area, and dropped the car off on March 11.

The Complications


Geico's original estimate showed a great deal of inexperience, saying that the significant majority of the damage would buff out. When it didn't, the body shop contacted Geico for a supplemental estimate for the remainder of the work that needed to be done. The total damage ballooned from $800 to $3000, and almost the entire car needed to be repainted, but almost all of it was approved. The part that wasn't approved? The hood chips, despite me being assured that they would be covered, were not. I was told that they were pre-existing rock chips, and I was welcome to open a separate no-fault claim for them (with a second deductible, of course), but they would not be covered under this claim. My evidence was blatantly ignored, the adjuster said "I don't care what photos you have, I say they're pre-existing rock chips" (exact quote).

The Dispute


When I chose this car, it wasn't the only Audi TT I looked at, but I picked it in large part because it was the only one I could find with no cosmetic damage, not even minor nicks. I examined it when I took delivery to confirm, and re-examined it even more thoroughly when I got home, carefully looking over every body panel. This is something I've always done; I'm exceptionally passionate about my cars, and nothing happens to the paint or body of a car I own without me knowing about it almost instantly. I have a discerning eye for visual defects, which is an asset to my work, so when I say the paint was pristine when I took delivery, I don't say that lightly. And when Geico offered me the option to double my out-of-pocket costs (and impact my flawless insurance record negatively) or settle for a significant number of blemishes on my previously-flawless new car, I refused to accept either option. So I started talking to people.

The liability adjuster, who was the initial point of contact for the claim, was very sympathetic, and the only one at Geico who even looked at the photos I added to the claim. Unfortunately, since it was an auto damage issue, and Geico is weirdly bureacratic and compartmentalized, he was completely incapable of doing anything or helping in any way. I talked to two different auto damage adjusters, who didn't care what I had to say or what the pre-incident photos showed, their minds were made up. I talked to the body shop, who said they did kinda look like rock chips, but they believed me when I said they didn't exist immediately prior to the incident, and agreed that a car wash with foreign debris embedded in the brushes could've caused the damage as easily as rocks. Plus, the chips were down to bare metal with zero signs of weathering. But, since the shop is not Geico, they couldn't do anything either.

I didn't want to name names in this article, but the next two people I spoke to deserve it.

Steve Wladyka


The Geico adjusters put me in touch with Steve Wladyka, supervising adjuster for the Northern Virginia area, saying it was his decision. So I talked with him about it. He said there was no possible way a car wash could cause paint chips, even one with an obvious alignment/calibration issue and likely foreign material in its brushes, which was hitting the car hard enough to remove the license plate. He didn't look at the photos I provided, nor did he care to. His justification for calling them rock chips? His wife has a black car that's about the same age (but with considerably more mileage), and it has chips on the hood, therefore every car with 20,000 miles has the sort of heavy hood damage seen on mine, in places like this where roads are treated in winter. Because that's scientific enough to base legal decisions on, right? Aside from the obvious falacy in this, what about the fact that the car has summer sport tires and has likely never been driven much in winter? Or the fact that some of the chips exposed bare metal, yet had zero signs of weathering or wear, or touching up? Or, if anecdotal evidence is admissable, how about the fact that among people who have a similar lifestyle to me (commute to work via public transit, car stays in garage almost all the time and is only used on weekends and occasional evenings), no one has rock chips on their car? I could walk through my entire apartment building's parking garage (almost a block long) end to end, and not find a single car with the sort of damage on the nose than mine had.

Mr. Wladyka wasn't interested in the pre-incident photos of the car, which clearly showed a mirror-smooth perfect hood. He didn't look at them, and wasn't going to. He didn't want to talk to either of my witnesses, one of whom saw the car less than an hour before the incident. He couldn't answer my questions about his reasoning for his assumption other than his wife's dinged-up hood. After talking in circles for a few minutes, he finally said I could dispute the claim, which would halt all work on the vehicle, so I did. I also alluded to getting a lawyer involved. Mr. Wladyka's response was almost giddy, with a sort of "bring it on" bravado that really caught me off guard, and while I knew it might come down to involving lawyers, I really didn't want to go down that road.

After that conversation, not much happened. No one at Geico contacted me. My attempts to reach out to the company through other channels were unsuccessful, all I found were people who couldn't help, or chirping crickets (usually the latter). The shop contacted me for a status report at one point, but couldn't be very helpful. I asked around friends and coworkers for a recommendation for a local lawyer, no one could offer anything, and having never done this before, I had zero idea where to start.

Finally, I was able to get the contact information for someone higher up. But things went even worse than with Steve Wladyka.

Bill Knauss


I called Bill Knauss, claims manager for Virginia, on April 4, and left a voicemail. He returned my call on April 5 around lunchtime. The conversation followed mostly the same pattern as with Steve Wladyka; I had photos, eyewitnesses, and science, he had three adjusters following hunches and anecdotal assumptions, which somehow trumps evidence. I had a few new points to make, all of which were summarily dismissed with more nonsense, to the point that I felt like I was talking to a 12-year-old (his LinkedIn profile doesn't help that feeling). But then it got worse. He accused me of having buyers remorse about my car. He accused me of buying it without examining it. He even hinted at an accusation of committing insurance fraud, saying that I was trying to get the car wash to cover pre-existing damage. He had no interest in looking at the photos, which disprove both his assumptions and his accusations, and when I offered witnesses, he said "I'll talk to whoever you want, but it won't make a difference, it's my decision and no evidence you can offer will change my mind" (exact quote).

I did provide contact information for the salesman who sold me the car, an older gentleman who's been selling cars for 30 years, and who is probably the most transparently trustworthy sales person I've ever had the pleasure of doing business with. He took great pride in both the car and in working out the details of my trade-in, and when I told him about the car wash damage after I picked it up, he was devastated, volunteering to go to court and testify if he had to. I don't know if he was ever contacted.

Aftermath


Ultimately, there wasn't really a resolution. I withdrew my dispute on April 9, after contemplating it over the weekend, and evaluating how much more time it would take to continue fighting this.

I contacted the body shop for an estimate to cover the hood chips out of pocket, with numbers already in my head. If it was $200 or less, I could easily pull that out of my next paycheck. If it was $500 or more, I'd start serious lawyer-shopping. The number they said was $400, right in the middle. I opted to go ahead and pay out of pocket anyway; that's a lot of cash to cough up without notice, especially right now (March was expensive), but it's not impossible. I've told both Geico and the shop to resume work on the vehicle.

I will be seeking a new insurance company before my current policy is up for renewal. I will never do business with Geico again. I will never recommend them to anyone, whereas before this, I happily recommended them to everyone who was looking for insurance, usually citing the incredible decrease in my premiums after switching.

Through this ordeal, I ended up paying almost double my deductible. I had to make alternate travel arrangements for several out-of-town events I'd been planning to attend for months. Aside from the generosity of friends, any place I wanted to go that wasn't within a half-mile of my apartment or train station was out of reach. And, of course, there was the Geico-induced stress. I lost sleep over this. I cried over this. My ability to perform my job efficiently suffered, from having to take so much time for phone calls, research, and psyching myself up for those calls.

Congratulations, Geico, you won. I'm not a very strong person, I'm not the sort of person who can effectively navigate or stand up to bureacracy, and you broke me. I hope it was worth it.

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Natasha Softpaw

April 2014

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