Apparent foe helps end auto dispute

The Baltimore Sun

Everyone should have a mom like Marie Persichilli.

The retired social services worker, who lives in North Carolina, e-mailed and called for help recently after one of her 25-year-old twin daughters, both cadets in training for the Baltimore Police Department, ran into a mess of car problems. After more than a month of tackling the issue on her own as her daughters attended all-day classes at the academy, Persichilli thought she needed an assist.

Little did she know, Persichilli was already a force to be reckoned with while sitting at home 450 miles away. Nor did she realize that one of the apparent bad guys was her most powerful friend.

The trouble began July 19 when daughter Victoria Folk was driving her 2004 Mazda 3. With just a couple of months left on a three-year or 50,000-mile warranty, Folk heard a loud, knocking noise in the engine. When she opened up the hood and checked the dipstick, she discovered that there was no oil in the engine.

"She had it towed to the nearest dealership, which was Heritage Mazda of Bel Air," Persichilli said. "Since Vicky was in class all day, she had me deal with everyone."

Heritage soon informed Persichilli that Mazda would not honor the warranty because previous service work at another facility had damaged the car. Persichilli called the last company that worked on Vicky's car, Sears Auto Center in White Marsh, and it also denied responsibility.

The only thing Persichilli knew for sure was that her daughter was stuck with an $8,600 bill for engine repair.

"It's just been awful," Persichilli said. "She was paying people for rides to the academy. She borrowed a friend's car for a week. She was bumming rides off friends. She doesn't have $8,600."

So Persichilli launched a dogged campaign to right what she saw as an obvious wrong.

In a two-week stay at her daughter's home in Middle River, Persichilli drove back and forth between Heritage and Sears Auto Center to meet with supervisors. When that didn't work, she went back home to North Carolina. She began calling both businesses and writing e-mails to the corporate headquarters of both.

That persistence got someone's attention. Sears' insurer, Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc., soon sent a damage appraiser to inspect Vicky's Mazda.

To Persichilli's dismay, the appraiser's report to Sedgwick only supported Sears' stance. Middle River-based Property Damage Appraisers' invoice to Sedgwick stated that "In this inspector's opinion, the damage to the filter housing was caused by the engine undercover being struck by some object and in turn impacting the filter housing causing a leak. Due to the number of impacts to the undercover and the damage to the undercover, it is impossible to say that the damage was done solely at the time of the oil change."

In a call to Sears Auto in White Marsh, someone who identified himself as the center's manager, but declined to disclose his name, informed me that: "We've turned it over to our insurance company. The insurance company is taking care of the customer." Sears was not going to budge, apparently. A call to Sears' corporate office in Illinois was not returned.

Meanwhile, Persichilli had turned back to Mazda. She still found no hope there.

"We kind of got sandwiched in the middle of this," said Michael Weatherman, service manager for Heritage Mazda. "Mazda pays me well to fix cars that are still under warranty. But this was not damage caused by workmanship or by a defect in manufacturing. It was a man-made damage.

"It was very evident that an improper tool was used to change the oil. Mazda doesn't require that your car be serviced at a dealership, but to stay under warranty, you have to maintain your vehicle as per the instructions in the owner's manual and have receipts for the work done. When we took a look at the car, we could see tell-tale signs that there were deep teeth marks on the plastic housing to the oil filter. Someone used the wrong tool to do the job, which caused the leak. That nullified the warranty. Nobody felt worse for her than us, but there was nothing we could do."

Weatherman suggested that Persichilli contact her daughter's auto insurance company, Erie Insurance Group. She immediately called them.

"They denied the claim," Persichilli said. "So where do you go from here? You pay your car insurance - full coverage because your car is almost brand new - and they say, 'Tough.' Sears is saying, 'Tough.' Mazda is saying 'Tough.' This makes no sense to me. Do I have to hire my own appraiser and a lawyer to get justice?"

In a fight among three giants - in this case, Mazda, Sears and Erie - Persichilli seemed way outmatched. As individual consumers, most of us don't have the time, money or stable of attorneys to fight such battles.

But what she didn't immediately realize was that she had a powerful ally on her side - Erie.

Wait. Didn't it reject her claim?

Initially, yes. But Sears, even though it denied fault, did Persichilli a huge favor when it sent the appraiser to look at Vicky's Mazda. The Aug. 6 report that blamed an "object" for the damage opened the door to a new claim with Erie.

"A bad oil change would not be covered under her personal insurance," said Karen Barrow, spokeswoman for the Maryland Insurance Administration. "But if she struck something, as the appraiser's report said, that very well could be covered under her comprehensive car insurance."

Persichilli called Erie back and insisted this time that Vicky's comprehensive insurance should cover the damage.

"It worked," Persichilli said. "Erie sent an appraiser out there. Vicky got the OK from Erie to rent a car, so she's got transportation to the academy now."

Erie also has OK'd the work needed on the car.

Erie won't talk about individual cases, but spokesman Mark Dombrowski said it's always wise to get your insurance company involved.

As consumers, we often see auto insurers as an archfoe that's got a happy trigger finger on raising our premium rates. Most of us have deep-seated fear that a call to the insurer will surely result in some sort of rise in our rates. But we also should remember that there are times when our personal insurer can serve as our strongest ally.

"It's very important for policyholders to understand the extent of their coverage," Dombrowski said.

"In the situation where an object caused damage, you're right, your comprehensive insurance should cover it. We'll cover anything but wear and tear on a vehicle. If there is an opportunity, whether it's through an object damaging your car or faulty workmanship, we'll investigate. If we're able to prove that someone was the cause of the damage, we'll pay the claim and represent our client's interests and our interests by going after the accountable party through subrogation," Dombrowski said.

So, the question of whether it was man or object is not Persichilli's or her daughter's problem anymore. Erie will get to the bottom of it in figuring out whom to hold accountable for that $8,600 claim.

It probably helps that Erie also received a copy of the service report from Heritage Mazda that says: "Engine ran out of oil. Filter housing is damaged from using the wrong tool to change oil filter. Not a Mazda issue. Falls back on last facility that changed the oil & filter. Housing was not damaged from impact."

"Erie told us they're going to take this up with Sears," Persichilli said. "I can't tell you how relieved I am."

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests @baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming.

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