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Monday, January 28, 2013

The War between Insurance Companies and Body Shops That You Never Knew Was Being Waged


I’ve written other articles about how insurance companies try to fix your car as cheaply as they can without showing the necessary concern for the quality and safety of the repairs. You can find them on this blog, www.EarlStewartOnCars.com, “Collision Insurance and Your Rights” and “Coping with Body Shops and Insurance Companies”.

This new article was written by Alan Nappier (pronounced like rapier), my body shop manager at Earl Stewart Toyota. Alan is not only the best body shop manager I’ve employed in my 47 years as a car dealer, but one of the smartest, most articulate people I know. I’ll probably sound like I’m overdoing it but he also has an incredible sense of humor. I say all this so that when you read what he has to say below, please take it as the gospel. Alan is not a “smoke blower” or an exaggerator. He tells it like it is.

Your body shop is either at war with the insurance companies or they fight on their side. If your body shop is not fighting for you to protect your car from cheap, poor quality, and unsafe repairs you’re in a “heap of trouble”. The chances are that if your body shop is on your insurance company’s “approved repairer list” that its loyalty is not to you but to that insurance company. You should take your car to the body shop that you know and trust will fix your car with your interests paramount in their mind, not one who must “play ball” with your insurance company or lose their membership on the “approved repairer list”. One way to find out whose side your body shop is on is to ask them if they will be asking you to sign two forms. One is called a “Limited Power of Attorney” and the second is called an “Assignment of Proceeds”. Please read on and Alan will explain very clearly why this is so.

By Alan Nappier:

Getting an insurance company to “approve” proper repairs to a collision damaged automobile is the toughest part of the collision repair industry. First of all, in a legal sense, the insurance company really has no right to dictate or blueprint a repair process. Their responsibility to the customer is to pay for property damage, NOT determine HOW the vehicle is to be repaired. The insurance company makes money by taking in premiums and investing these premiums. Any damage claim payouts are EXPENSES and like any company, controlling expenses is a top priority. This creates a conflict of interest when the insurance company is allowed to participate in the repair process. Contrary to popular belief, insurance companies DO NOT look out for YOUR best interests; they look out for their OWN best interest. This scenario leads to an adversarial relationship between insurance companies and HONEST repair facilities. Dishonest or unethical repair facilities view the insurance company as their customer and you as a product. They will repair your vehicle however the insurance company instructs, regardless of quality or the resulting structural integrity of the automobile. They want to keep the insurance company happy so that they may keep getting business referred to them. It’s a great arrangement for everybody EXCEPT the vehicle owner. An ethical body shop will repair your vehicle properly REGARDLESS of the insurance companies’ suggestions otherwise. In the past, we would have to just “absorb” the difference between what the insurance company “allowed” and what it REALLY cost to repair your car.

  Enter now a powerful couple of legal documents called the “Limited Power of Attorney” (POA) and the “Assignment of Proceeds” (AOP). The POA is exactly what it says it is. It gives the repair facility the power to initiate legal action or collection efforts on your behalf. No, we can’t steal your house or take over your bank account, the LIMITED POA is specific to the insurance claim  Remember, in a legal sense, the shop has NO legal connection with, or obligation to, the insurance company. Our contract (signed repair order) and responsibility is with YOU, the vehicle owner. Therefore, YOU are still financially obligated for the monetary difference between what the company allowed and the true cost of the repair. A POA allows me to repair the car properly, deliver the finished product to you and then begin collection efforts on your behalf. Odds are, you’ll never hear about the claim again.

  The AOP is actually a document that “assigns” your contractual arrangement with the insurance company to the repair facility which then gives us legal standing to sue this insurance company directly. This “connection” must be established to allow the shop to sue for “breach of contract”. When an insurance company fails to adequately compensate for property damage, they have breached their contract with YOU. The AOP extends this contractual obligation to the repair facility.

  With all of THAT being said, here’s the REALITY of the situation. We are most likely never going to use these documents. The power of these documents is the knowledge that they exist. Reaching an agreed repair dollar figure is a negotiation and a negotiation is a battle of wills. You don’t want to enter any “battle” without the proper weapons and knowledge. The AOP and POA are the most powerful weapons the repair facility has available to it. When confronted by a mugger with a knife, just showing the dirty no-good your gun is enough to deter further aggression and typically end an ugly situation and you walk away the victor, not with any illicit gains, but, just with what was rightfully yours to begin with. This is the EXACT same thing we use the AOP and POA for. Simply by brandishing these powerful weapons, the muggers (insurance companies in this case), recognize a losing battle and retreat. No insurance company wants to have their dirty little secrets exposed in court. They know they can’t win because the facts and truth are on our side. The end result is, these couple of signatures you gave me makes me David to the insurance companies Goliath.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Grandma’s and Grandpa’s “Freedom Machine”



You may have read in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago about a 94 year old man who hit a woman riding a bicycle. It wasn't the man’s fault; the woman, in her fifties, ran a stop sign. They put the old man in jail overnight and he was given probation because he was driving with no license. It had been taken away because he failed his driver’s test. He said he had to drive because he had to take his wife to the doctor and pick up medicine for her.

There is another reason that a lot of younger people don’t seem to understand why this old man still owned a car. If you are one of these people, think back to the first time you ever drove a car. Think back to the time you owned your first car. Can you recall that wonderful feeling of FREEDOM? No longer did Mom or Dad have to take you to school, to work, to the store, or to a friend’s house. Or, you didn't have to take the bus, the street car, or impose on a friend who already owned a “freedom machine”. If you are a guy, do you remember how you felt when you first picked your girlfriend up at her home in your very own car? I don’t know about you, but I still feel a tingle when I think about it. I really can’t think of a more memorable experience in any young person’s life. Your first kiss is probably a close second [My first car was a 1951 Pontiac Chieftain & my first kiss was from Mary Ann Riggle during a “spin the bottle game”].

 If you are one of those younger people who curse at that gray haired driver in front of you because she is driving too slowly, just remember that she is probably a safer driver than you. Newspapers like to feature stories of senior citizens having accidents and questioning their mental and physical faculties for driving but insurance companies charge senior citizens lower premiums than you. That means they have fewer accidents and cause fewer injuries. Admittedly that is partly because we seniors drive fewer miles but it’s also because most of us drive slower and more carefully than you.

My Uncle Charlie died eight years ago. He was 94. My Aunt Marion died within a year of Uncle Charlie. They lived in the same very modest, small house on Valencia Drive in West Palm Beach for fifty years. But they always owned a Cadillac and it was always parked outside in their driveway. Up until the time they were in their late eighties, the highlight of their week was to take a Sunday drive in their shiny Cadillac. Uncle Charlie always drove. When his eyesight got too bad to drive, he still kept that Cadillac in their driveway, always clean and shiny. His eyesight was still good enough so that, from his rocking chair in his living room, he could see that big Cadillac sitting outside (and so could his neighbors).

My father died when he was 86 and he drove a Pontiac TransAm up until the very last. He had cataracts removed from both eyes and back then, you had to wear “coke bottle” style glasses to see after this operation. He had no peripheral vision and there were a lot of scrapes, dings, and dents that appeared on both sides of that TransAm. Thank God he never had a serious accident. I saw Dad every day and I would see that the dents and scratches were regularly repaired. He always said he didn't know where they came from and I never questioned him about that. Maybe I was wrong, but I didn't have the heart to ask him not to drive anymore. I knew how important that car was to Dad and I knew how devastating it would be to him if he couldn't drive anymore.

You may have heard of George Greenberg a. k. a. the “Mayor of Clematis”. He died a few months ago at the age of 91. He owned Pioneer Linens on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, a store founded by his father, Max, in 1912. George and I were close friends and I delivered a eulogy at George’s funeral at the request of his grandson and daughter. George always drove an old Buick station wagon, although he was a wealthy man and could have bought any car he wanted. A couple of years ago, George finally treated himself to a new Mercedes Benz SLK-Class convertible! Boy did George look good in that car and he was always smiling when he drove it! When he was diagnosed with brain cancer and given only months to live, he finally had to stop driving his freedom machine. His grandson drove him to our monthly dinner at Carmine’s Ocean Grille and picked him up. It never was the same for George after that.

 
At my Toyota dealership in North Palm Beach, we have a lot of older customers. It’s just the demographics of northern Palm Beach County. My average customer is 55 and I have lots of customers in their seventies, eighties, and nineties. Maybe it’s because I’m a senior citizen too, but I especially like talking to my older customers and I’ve become personal friends with some. I can tell you from personal experience how important their cars are to them in their latter years. During your middle years when you have so much more going on in your life, your car becomes more utilitarian and you take it for granted. But when you retire and your life is not as hectic your car returns to the importance it had when you were sixteen…your “freedom machine”.

We recently leased a new Camry to one of our very good customers. This was the third car that she got from us over the last seven years and she had just turned 90. One of my managers, who has worked for me for 20 years and is a neighbor of hers, handled the lease. About a month after she took her new Camry home, her Grandson learned of the transaction and demanded that we rescind the lease. When we spoke to our customer, she let us know that her Grandson was very upset with her for leasing the car. He didn't think she should be driving a car anymore and that she wouldn't live long enough to make all the payments on a 4 year lease. We offered to refund all of the profit on the lease (about $850), but the Grandson insisted that we take the lease car back. This would cost my company thousands of dollars because of the depreciation a car takes on as soon as it is titled as a used car.

Yesterday afternoon my customer’s Grandson and Stepson visited me in my office. They continued to demand that I rescind the lease [Only the leasing company, Southeast Toyota Finance can rescind the lease] and absorb the thousands of dollars in depreciation on 1 month old used car. They suggested that I may have broken laws by exploiting the elderly and that if I did not succumb to their demands they would sue me. They had already called Toyota to complain about my actions. Not so politely, I asked them to leave my office.

This experience troubled me for the rest of the day and even last night and is what inspired this column. Now I understand why I was so angry at the actions of my customer’s Grandson and Stepson. They didn’t seem to understand how much that car meant to their Grandmother/Stepmother’s happiness and what an important thing her “freedom machine” was to her.  I have to wonder how much of their ire was due to genuine concern for her or the potential financial impact on her estate. Her Grandson told me that she had put only 1,500 miles on her last car and what does she need a new car for? He just doesn’t get it! A new car is a lot more than just a way to get to the drug store. To a senior citizen it’s a source of pleasure, pride, and comfort, knowing that it’s in their driveway for everyone to see and it’s there if they need it.

One of my sons just called me to double check on the correct time for him to come over for Thanksgiving dinner today. I told him that I was writing this column and we discussed the subject. I also told him that I hoped that neither he, nor his two brothers would ever take away my “freedom machine”.



Monday, January 14, 2013

Car Dealers Exploiting the Elderly


I wrote this column several years ago, but I’m still getting calls from elderly people and their sons and daughters about how the elderly are being victimized by car dealers. The most recent was from the son of woman in her nineties. She was ill when she leased the car and asked the salesman if she became ill or died, what would happen to her financial obligations on the leased car. He told her not to worry, as long as the car was returned there would be no cost to her or her estate. This is one of the most common lies told to older people by car salesmen. Many older people have never leased a car. They think of it as a rental car. This woman is now seriously ill and unable to drive. The son has had to pay thousands of dollars in lease payments to the leasing company.

I use the term “car dealer” often in my columns and I want to make it clear that I am not trying to get personal. I could use the terms “car salesman” or “car sales manager”, but the dealer is the boss and I firmly believe the placard Harry Truman had on his desk, “The buck stops here”. The guy that owns the place is responsible for the actions of his employees. Just because he doesn’t know that there are some salesmen or managers taking advantage of his customers, is no excuse.

When I became a senior citizen I truly began to see the world in a different light. I have been a car dealer for over 40 years, but I have seen my own business through the eyes of a senior citizen for only the last few. One thing that has helped this awareness has been my relative new public persona, brought on by my TV commercials. Seeing me on TV (and also reading this column) precipitates a lot of phone calls, emails, and letters from seniors in Palm Beach, Martin, and St. Lucie counties. Some of these are very complimentary. Many of them are also calls for help or advice from those who were taken advantage of when they bought their car.

I get more calls from widows than any other single category. In my dealership last Friday, I was introduced to a widow in her seventies who had come in to buy a car with her nephew. She had never bought a car before. Her husband had always handled this responsibility. He passed away 2 years ago. She was very wise to bring along her nephew to assist her in her first car purchase.

I turned 72 last month and I’ve learned that I’m not quite as sharp in some areas as I once was. My memory is not as good and I am not as fast as I used to be. This is not to say that I am not as smart as I was when I was younger. In fact, I’m a lot smarter and I’m a whole lot more knowledgeable.  There was a great article in Wall Street Journal entitled “The Upside of Aging”. It explained how recent scientific studies have proven that even though certain mental abilities like memory and reaction times regress as we age, other more important mental abilities like judgment, empathy, vocabulary, and semantic memory more than offset the negatives. Semantic memory is the recollection of facts and figures from your field of endeavor or hobby and is most robust in seniors. If you would like to read this article, send me your email address or fax number and I will send it to you.

Buying the right car at the right price is no easy task. There are a lot of variables like trade-in allowances, monthly payments, discounts, interest rates, lease or buy, finance or pay cash, and all that I just mentioned has to do only with the cost of the car. What about which is the best make and model for you? This process should take lots of time in the study and preparation but too often purchases are made in just a few hours with little or no preparation.

The reasons why the elderly are so often targeted and exploited by car dealers (and other businesses) are many and complex. For one thing, there are just a lot of elderly people living in Palm Beach, Martin, and St. Lucie Counties. When a reporter asked John Dillinger why he robbed banks, Dillinger replied, “Because that’s where the money is”. Even though most senior citizens are smarter than ever, I believe that we are perceived by many as not being so smart. We are looked upon as easy prey. Also, I think that we pre-baby boomers grew up in a more trusting, family oriented time and we sometimes trust others more than we should.

In summary, if you are a pre-baby boomer like me, take extra precautions before you enter a car dealership. Do your homework carefully. Never, never make a rush decision. Do not buy that car on the same day you come into the dealership. Go home, discuss it with friends and family, and sleep on it. And if you call me, please call me before you buy the car, not after it’s too late.