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Farm Bureau blames phony ‘ethical obligation’ for its frivolous legal argument, shameful treatment of injured man in wheelchair: Part 1

August 20, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

Farm Bureau  defends or settles ‘as we consider appropriate’

Farm Bureau pot meet kettle

First, let me make a confession. I don’t like Farm Bureau.

As an attorney, my own personal experience has been that they are slippery, sneaky, and shameless in how they deny insurance claims to car accident victims.

This was shaped early on in my legal career, when Farm Bureau got the reputation in the Michigan legal community for NEVER giving permission to settle an underinsurance claim or lawsuits. When I was a young lawyer, that meant no matter how catastrophic the injuries from a car accident, Farm Bureau was forcing its own insureds (its customers and my clients) to spend thousands of unnecessary dollars of their own money in legal costs by forcing them to trial against an at-fault driver who caused a car accident before they would ever pay out to any underinsurance policy. That meant that even when the insurance company for the at-fault driver was offering their entire policy limit, Farm Bureau was refusing to give permission to settle as a way to refuse to pay out on the very underinsurance coverage that its customers had purchased.

The aim was very clear – Farm Bureau was playing the lawsuit lottery. We often think of a lawsuit lottery as a plaintiff attorney taking a shot at trial hoping for a crazy runaway jury as a way to get a lot of money. But with Farm Bureau, it was a lawsuit lottery where they were hoping for the exact opposite. These claims adjusters were refusing to give permission to settle because they were hoping some ultra-conservative jury would return a crazy verdict on a horrible personal injury case for far less than the full policy limits being preferred by the insurance company of the at-fault driver, so Farm Bureau could avoid paying out entirely on the underinsurance policy.  It just didn’t matter the havoc and money they were causing everyone to waste – their own customers most of all.

But the cases and underlying injuries were so serious, that many judges became furious with the big insurer for wasting the time and money of the court and the public.  That was just the start of my own legal experiences with Farm Bureau as an insurance attorney.

Now, let’s fast-forward to the present.

This same auto insurer is blaming its phony “ethical obligation” for the shameful way they are treating a car accident victim who was injured while using  a wheelchair.

Farm Bureau has denied compensation to George Veness in a Macomb County, Michigan lawsuit filed by Veness and his attorney. Veness was paralyzed from the waist down in a 2004 work accident, and was using a wheelchair when he was hit by a car.

Farm Bureau is defending the claim because Mr. Veness did not have Michigan No Fault auto insurance. On his motorized wheelchair.

Veness was using  wheelchair to cross the street when he was struck by an SUV being driven by Farm Bureau’s insured customer, an off-duty police officer. For more about how Mr. Veness is being denied compensation and No Fault benefits, check out our blog post, “State Farm’s treatment of man in wheelchair so outrageously ‘unbelievable’ it couldn’t be made up.”

Rather than just admit they want to save money by denying Mr. Veness’s compensation claim, Farm Bureau is trying to claim its absurd treatment of Mr. Veness is driven by it’s so-called “ethical obligation” that the auto insurer has to its insured.

Pot, meet Kettle.

In a recent story by Local 4 WDIV TV’s “Ruth To The Rescue,” which reported on Mr. Veness’s Macomb County lawsuit against Farm Bureau’s insured customer (the off-duty police officer) and against State Farm (which is using the same argument as Farm Bureau to deny No Fault benefits to Mr. Veness), Farm Bureau made the following statement:

“Farm Bureau Insurance Company of Michigan … [has] an ethical obligation to [our insured] to provide him a vigorous defense to all claims that are being asserted by Mr. Veness …”

Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth.

What is really happening here?

Neither Farm Bureau’s auto insurance policy, nor Michigan’s No Fault law, nor Michigan’s Insurance Code imposes on Farm Bureau the type of “ethical” obligation that Farm Bureau claims to be fulfilling.

There certainly is no ethical obligation to deny even the right to make a a valid legal claim after your own customer his someone with a car and causes injuries that require surgery by making up a completely frivolous legal argument, such as the wheelchair should be insured.

As for Farm Bureau’s so-called “obligation” to “provide … a … defense” to its insured customer, that too, is not what Farm Bureau has misleadingly tried to make it out to be.

And that highlights the least understood aspect of how Farm Bureau fulfills its so-called “ethical obligation” to its insured customers. It is Farm Bureau, not the insured customer, who calls the shots.

When talking to the media, Farm Bureau shrewdly made it appear that they were denying pain and suffering compensation to Mr. Veness after his car accident because they had an “ethical obligation” to their insured customer to do so, i.e., Farm Bureau was fulfilling its ethical obligation by doing its insured’s bidding.

But the reality is that what an insured customer wants to do plays no part in Farm Bureau’s decision-making process. The only “obligation” guiding Farm Bureau’s actions with respect to Mr. Veness’s claim is the auto insurer’s “obligation” to do what is in Farm Bureau’s best interest – such as denying a valid accident claim by now claiming Mr. Veness was really an uninsured driver of his wheelchair, and as such is barred from suing the Farm Bureau insured.

Farm Bureau makes this point perfectly clear in the “Liability Coverage” section of its standard “Auto Policy”:

“We [Farm Bureau] will settle or defend, as we consider appropriate, any claim or suit asking for [compensatory] damages [for bodily injury].”

*    *    *

“Our [Farm Bureau’s] duty to settle or defend ends when our limit of liability for this coverage has been used up by the payment of settlements or judgments.”


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