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Mercury: Kind and Generous

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Mercury Insurance is so generous.

On Tuesday, California voters will get the chance to vote on Prop 17, which Mercury, out of the goodness of their hearts, has spent some $10 million on. Those crazy kids. All to save us money.

Unless you live under a rock, you've heard about this initiative, which if passed, will allow insurance companies to raise premiums on drivers who, for any reason, didn't have insurance coverage at some point in the past five years. They're calling it a "loyalty discount."

Well, duh, you say. Mercury doesn't want to save us money.

But it's not just Prop 17... Mercury doesn't appear to like paying legitimate claims either. I would know. I'm a Mercury insured.

Two years ago, I was rear-ended by another Mercury insured while sitting at a stop sign, an accident that resulted in a neck injury. No problem, I thought. Two civilized individuals, both insured by the same company - why would there be a problem? I got my car repaired, then contacted Mercury to let them know they needed only to reimburse my out-of-pocket medical expenses - nothing else.

Know what they said?

The generous folks at Mercury offered me about half of what I had paid out of pocket. In other words, I would only have to pay a few thousand dollars for being rear-ended. Lucky me!

Wait a minute... isn't that what insurance is for, I asked? Why do I make those monthly payments, if not to keep from going into debt in case of an accident? Apparently not. Even though I had gone to my doctor of 25 years, a reputable physician in Beverly Hills, in their eyes, I had "over-treated," so I was out of luck.

I had a choice. I could accept their offer and eat the difference, or I could sue them. However, with some research, I discovered countless similar complaints... it seemed that this was actually a pattern with Mercury; and that if I did venture to sue them, I would likely spend years in depositions and a trial, not something I had the time or the patience for.

In a phone interview, Naomi Seligman, Director of Public Affairs for Consumer Watchdog, a non-partisan consumer advocate organization, said, "there are hundreds of complaints lodged against Mercury for everything from discrimination to trying to weasel customers out of claims money." I was hardly unique.

I decided to sue them in small claims court.

I know what you're thinking. You can't sue an insurance company in small claims court! True. But if you sue their insured, Mercury will send a representative. Not for you, silly -- for the other guy.

Of course, small claims court is for quick, no-frills citizen vs. citizen hearings; however, Mercury found a loophole. In fact, the Mercury representative in my case seemed to know a lot of folks at the courthouse, and admitted to the defendant that he was "a regular."

My "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (or "Ms. Evans-Gardner Goes to Van Nuys") moment was a proud one. I showed up in court with a thick file of color-coded exhibits, my witnesses, and a kick-ass closing argument, if I do say so myself. I greeted the defendant, apologizing for having to drag him into court. He was cordial, but embarrassed. An insured driver, he would have also hoped to avoid such a situation.

A Mercury rep, holding an official-looking briefcase, stuck out his hand with a big smile. "Good morning, I am Mr. S, here from Mercury Insurance on behalf of Mr. X." "Oh, good morning," I replied. "Are you here for me, too?"

He looked puzzled. "You?" he smirked.

"Well, I'm your insured, too." I looked around the room. "Is there a Mercury guy for me?" He looked flustered. "Gosh," I said. "Could there be a conflict of interest?"

He proceeded to advise me, kindly, mind you, that I had little chance of winning and suggested I accept their settlement. "No, thank you," I answered politely.

"I see you have your husband and son here," said Mercury Man. Well, yes, I explained. Not only were they witnesses, but this was also a teaching moment for my 12 year-old. I looked him straight in the eye, adding, "I want my son to see that when someone tries to take advantage of you, you stand up for yourself." He sputtered something about how, as a parent, he appreciated that. I wondered how his parental ethics figured into bullying a victim into paying for her injuries.

To make a long story short, my Perry Mason moment never happened. The commissioner simply looked at the evidence and awarded me the maximum amount, plus court fees.

In other words, I beat Mercury's scrawny ass.

All I had to do was sit back and wait for my check, right? Wrong. It didn't come. I couldn't believe it. Could Mercury really be so bold as to violate a Superior Court order?

I called Darrel Ng, Press Secretary for the California State Department of Insurance, who said, "Mercury has been fined $500,000 in the past five years for claims handling practices, among other things." Guess they don't mind breaking a few rules.

Meanwhile, $500,000 over five years? That's just $100,000 per year, a downright bargain for Mercury, whose profits were reported at over $400 million last year.

Turns out, Mercury isn't all that generous after all. Spending millions to save us money? That's a good one. The question is: how many voters will they fool with their misleading ads and ballot language?

I finally received my check the other day, exactly two years after the accident, and though my neck still hurts, that's a load off my mind. By the way, I'm shopping for a new auto insurance company... any suggestions?