A Honda Element slammed into the rear end of Charlie Lusco's Dodge Caravan on Harford Road late on a December night.
Finding what would end up being hundreds of dollars' worth of repairs, Lusco and his wife, Deborah, who was driving, did almost everything they were supposed to do after an accident.
They called the police. They wrote down the officer's name and the number of their complaint report. They wrote down the model, color and license plate of the other driver's car. Ignoring the 18-year-old driver's request to "forget the whole thing," the Luscos insisted on exchanging insurance information. They called their insurer, Geico, that night.
Short of taking a photo of the accident or drawing a diagram of the collision, one would think those precautions would ensure the York, Pa., couple a hassle-free claim.
One would be wrong.
"We called the 24-hour line and reported the accident to Geico right away," said Lusco, a 55-year-old enrollment technician for a health insurance company. "That was on Dec. 7. They said they were going to contact the other insurance company and let us know. It's now May."
Here's the interesting thing about auto insurance: For it to work properly, we all have to play by the rules.
Usually, once you do your part and contact your insurer, it takes over. The other driver's insurance will pick up the tab for damage if the accident was its client's fault. If there's a dispute, your insurance will usually cover the cost and then settle with the other insurer to get reimbursed on the claim.
The Luscos, however, ran into a glitch: The young man who rear-ended their minivan did not report it to his insurance agency, Geico informed the Luscos. As a result, Geico could not go after the other insurance company to recoup their costs.
So the Luscos had to shell out $250 for the deductible on their collision coverage.
"That basically means $250 out of our pocket," Lusco said. "We didn't even do anything wrong, but we're the ones inconvenienced because this kid won't report the accident to his insurance company."
It's not for lack of effort on anyone's part.
Lusco said Geico has tried getting in touch with the driver by phone and certified mail. Lusco spoke to the young man's insurance company, which also tried to get in touch with its client. Lusco has also tried calling the driver and the driver's mother, who owns the Element that the young man was tooling around in that day.
No luck. No one at the address listed for the young driver has answered the phone or signed for any piece of mail.
There's got to be a law against that, right?
There is. But the problem is that the law protects insurance companies - not the honest driver.
"Their hands are tied," said Randi Johnson, referring to the other driver's insurance company. Johnson is an associate commissioner of property and casualty insurance at the Maryland Insurance Administration.
Because the client failed to report the accident, Johnson said, his insurer has been "prejudiced" in this case, which means that his insurer "can't be held responsible if a judgment was entered against them."
I don't know about you, but that one left me scratching my noggin. That sounded to me like the other driver gets off scot-free for rear-ending the Luscos merely because he's decided not to tell.
If that's the case, why would any at-fault drivers report accidents to their insurers? Why would anyone even buy insurance anymore?
"You have a duty to cooperate with your insurance company," Johnson said. "You are supposed to report an accident to your insurer. If everyone stopped, insurance companies could claim prejudice all the time and get out of paying all the time. And then who would buy insurance after that?""Fortunately, most consumers report to their insurance companies."
Before you start feeling a slight case of road rage coming on, experts say that such deliberate transgressions are not without consequences. We don't have to rely on just the good faith and the honesty of our fellow man to do the right thing in an accident, thank goodness.
"Geico will surely go after them," Johnson said. "It's in Geico's interest to do that. They're going to want to recover the money they paid out. Most insurance companies are very aggressive about that."
In this case, if Geico can't pursue subrogation with the other driver's insurer (legal talk for recouping the money they paid out on the claim for an accident that wasn't their client's fault), Geico could sue the other driver. Geico could also sue the driver's mother, because he was using her car at the time.
That could get Geico a judgment from the driver, plus what they paid out and the deductible that the Luscos paid. This is where the Luscos will be glad that they took all the necessary steps after the accident, such as calling the police, because that sort of testimony comes in handy in a legal case.
That's not all.
"The fact that this other person didn't report the accident certainly makes this a messy situation," said Carolyn Gorman, vice president of the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. But it works both ways: Another consequence of failing to report an accident is that it could push an insurer to drop you. "You can't get insurance," she said.
Few insurers want to cover someone who doesn't play by the rules, Johnson said. "And once one company non-renews you or cancels your insurance, no one will want to insure you after that."
Such a risk keeps most people honest, experts say.
Charlie Lusco is only slightly comforted by that news. He's still out $250. His only recourse now is to push Geico into taking the other driver to court or filing a complaint with the Maryland Insurance Administration against the other driver's insurer.
Both will take a lot of time and even more patience.
"We're going to stay on Geico until this is resolved," Lusco said. "I never knew this before, but I guess insurance is set up in a way that you hope people will be honest. The problem is not everyone is honest."
And that might be the hardest lesson of all to learn.
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