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The Bad-Hands People

The coverage is sold by storefront brokers who offer cut-rate policies to low-income drivers.
Colby Katz

With Bob Marley wailing from her speakers, Sue Gibbons cruised north on Pine Island Road in Sunrise, keeping in mind her New Year's resolution to drive the speed limit. It was Saturday evening, January 1, 2005, so the pledge the 32-year-old Trinidadian immigrant had made was fresh in her mind. She'd met a friend earlier for dinner and planned to turn in early in her one-bedroom apartment in Lauderhill.

But a split second after she'd passed through the green light intersecting 25th Court, a car from the opposing lane made a wild left turn in front of her. Gibbons' 1991 Ford Escort hit with such impact that the car she broadsided flipped over, though that driver was uninjured.

"I was the only other car in the road," says Gibbons, a petite, soft-spoken woman with big brown eyes and short dreadlocks. "There was no way in hell he couldn't see me. Three seconds later, the police were there."

Her Ford had no airbags, so Gibbons' body curled around the seat belt across her chest. She lost her breath and was able to get out of the car only with the aid of a police officer. An ambulance driver asked if she felt she needed to be taken to the hospital, but an overpowering weariness had taken hold; all she wanted was to go home and sleep. "I was kind of out of it," she says. "I didn't know what to do. It was my first accident." A wrecking-truck driver drove her home.

"The next morning, I couldn't get up," she recalls. "I couldn't move. This whole area" -- she sweeps a hand across her upper torso -- "was swollen. My neck couldn't move properly." But Gibbons, who processes payroll for restaurants at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, lives paycheck to paycheck, and a day later, on Monday, she went in to work.

Her primary care doctor referred her to an orthopedist, but when she called that office to make an appointment, the receptionist asked with whom she was insured. "I told them it was United Auto Insurance," she says. "They said, 'They don't pay their bills, so we can't take you. '"

It was a moment of reckoning that hundreds, probably thousands, of drivers have experienced in the past few years: Personal injury policies issued by North Miami Beach-based United Auto Insurance Co. are tantamount to no coverage at all. There are more than 187,000 United policyholders, many of them low-income, high-risk drivers, paying $1,200 a year or more. A United policy allows a driver to meet the state requirement for auto insurance. But for policyholders who have filed claims, that's where the benefits end.

The company's protective umbrella leaks; its Rock of Gibraltar is made of papier mâché. You're not in good hands with United. "Every claim is a fraud to them, every doctor [not employed by United itself] a crook; no one is honest," declares Alex Barak, a Hollywood attorney who routinely battles the firm in court.

Lawyers representing United clients have gone to extremes in trying to extract benefits. They find themselves battling a tough, stubborn opponent with the resources and will to hold out for years.

"Every claim goes to court," gripes Kenneth Schurr, a Coral Gables attorney who has represented many clients suing United. "And even when you're in court, they do not call and say, let's settle this. Everything goes to jury trial."

United Auto's policies, which provide personal injury protection, or PIP, are marketed by agents located in working-class and immigrant neighborhoods. Also called no-fault insurance, PIP is supposed to quickly provide accident victims with $10,000 in benefits for medical care and lost wages from their own insurance carriers -- regardless of who caused the accident.

But about five years ago, United Auto adopted a stringent policy of fighting every claim, shutting down the flow of PIP benefits to a trickle and leaving a mountain of unpaid claims. Many of the company's creditors are physicians, chiropractors, and MRI labs that have assumed the debt through an "assignment of benefits." In those cases, patients sign over their benefits to the medical providers, who then directly bill the insurance company. But ultimately, the bills belong to the patients, and when United doesn't pay, policyholders are faced with collection agencies and financial collapse.

"Five, six thousand dollars is going to be an extreme financial hardship on these people," Schurr notes.

As a last recourse, many have turned to the courts. Thousands of cases against United Auto now clog the small claims courts in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, where the company sells most of its policies. The backlog remains despite the implementation of the waggishly nicknamed "PIP blitz." Several times a year, county judges from Miami-Dade County's branch offices converge on the main courthouse for a weeklong frenzy of PIP trials, the vast majority of which are against United.  

Winning against United in trial, however, doesn't always end the deadlock: Some attorneys have had to bring armed officers to United's headquarters to collect judgments they've won in court.

The frustrated medical providers and attorneys who routinely face United's ever-revolving cadre of in-house lawyers wonder why state regulators don't curb United's abuse. Some point to the hundreds of thousands of dollars the company has contributed to the campaigns of state legislators and judges, as well as to Tom Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, who's now running for governor. "Every complaint I've made to Tom Gallagher has remained unanswered," Barak says. " I don't think he's interested in tackling this issue."

ick Bruns, possessing a weary face and an unruly shock of dark hair, exudes the kind of devil-may-care attitude of a man who's succeeded in his chosen profession, little concerned anymore with the quotidian scramble to make a buck. You might say that suing United Auto has become something of a challenge to him.

He's been practicing chiropractic medicine in Fort Lauderdale for about 25 years, currently out of two converted bungalows a few blocks south of the New River near Federal Highway. Hanging on a wall near his desk is a glass case holding Ronald Reagan memorabilia, including a Dodgers shirt signed by "The Gipper." Defeated in a run for a Broward County Commissioner's seat in 2004, he now expresses disappointment in both political parties. He reserves his real disgust, however, for United Auto.

"In all my years of practice, I have never received a penny from United without suing," Bruns says during an interview in early August. "I have five lawsuits going right now against them. I've probably had 15 total."

One of those active suits involves Gibbons, who came to him during her sharp, post-accident learning curve about United. She recalls: "Dr. Bruns said, 'We'll take a look at you, and if it's really bad, we'll do something. '" She had a herniated disc in her neck as the result of whiplash.

"I never stayed away from work," says Gibbons, who commuted by bus to work until the other driver's insurance company ponied up a whopping $700 to replace her totaled Ford. "I live alone. I can't afford not to work. I just suck it up and take my muscle relaxers and do what I can. I'm not a crybaby."

Some might call Gibbons a real fighter. Or maybe a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a woman struggling to remain afloat in the wake of a bad, bad night out.

But to United Auto, Sue Gibbons is a fraud, just as, the company contends, the vast majority of its clients who make accident claims are.

"Why go through all that trouble?" Gibbons posits. "First of all, you take an hour or two off your job, drive to therapy, drive back. I have to have all these things in my neck twisted and turned. That accident was not fun."

Gibbons epitomizes the average United policyholder who attempts to make a claim, Bruns says. "She's paid her premiums," he continues. "She gets into an accident, not her fault. She goes to physicians, and as soon as they find out she has United as a carrier, they tell her they don't take that insurance, which makes her literally uninsured."

United notified Gibbons that she would have to undergo an independent medical examination, or IME, by a chiropractor chosen by the insurance company. She met with the chiropractor about two months after the accident and gave him copies of her x-rays and MRI tests.

"The first doctor didn't even read it," she recalls. "He tested my reflexes in my leg and foot. He asked me to turn my neck this way and that way." He then told her he was going to review her file. "Someone called his name, and two seconds later he handed me back the folder." She shakes her head and laughs incredulously. "It takes more than two seconds to read my file!"

A second doctor took a more hands-on approach. "He takes my neck and wrings it around," she says. "After they made their report, they sent Dr. Bruns paperwork stating there was nothing wrong with me. They didn't even ask me any questions, so how would they know? They did nothing."

United has paid nothing on the claim and provided neither Bruns nor Gibbons with any reasons for the delay or denial.

hen no-fault insurance was instituted by the Florida Legislature in 1972, it was supposed to end the adversarial approach to processing injury claims. Instead of arguing over fault, medical bills would be paid by your own insurer regardless of who caused the accident. All drivers were required to purchase a PIP policy.  

As Miami-Dade Judge Charles Edelstein recently described no-fault's raison d'être: "The idea behind PIP was to get medical bills paid promptly so that there would be a pool of providers who would render medical services to people without medical insurance or the personal ability to pay. Since over 45 million Americans have no health insurance and many more millions have policies with big deductibles and limited coverage, and since many of them live in Florida, without PIP, it's either no medical care or at the county hospital at taxpayer expense."

Ten grand these days, of course, isn't much, when it can be eaten up by an ambulance run, a one-night hospital stay, a specialist's examination, and a few tests. Thus, many drivers take out additional insurance to provide medical coverage for themselves, their passengers, or others who might be injured during a collision. But that coverage adds hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to premiums, and many low-income drivers take the minimum to get on the road: PIP (plus a small amount of property damage coverage).

Enter United Auto Insurance Co. Founded in 1989, the family-owned company is headed by patriarch Richard Parrillo Sr., who owns about 40 percent interest. Before coming to Florida, Parrillo had co-owned Safeway Insurance Co. in Chicago, which routinely fought claims in court. (Safeway was represented by brother Robert Parrillo's law firm, and plaintiff's attorneys complained then that the law firm lived by the motto, "Deny, delay, don't pay.")

Richard Parrillo brought the same philosophy to Florida when United Auto was founded 16 years ago. It's a lucrative business plan: In 2002, United Auto Insurance Co. made about $200 million in premiums on 142,560 policies, according to state records. The Parrillo family owns the $3.3 million headquarters in North Miami Beach.

The business has also been kind to Richard Parrillo personally. He owns a 5,000-square-foot brick mansion in Chicago -- complete with four fireplaces and four full baths -- valued at $1.1 million, as well as an $800,000 condo in Aventura.

United Auto owns or is affiliated with at least six other insurance-related companies and is licensed to sell insurance in Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia. The combined companies rake in about $400 million in sales a year, according to Insurance Journal, a trade publication.

Parrillo initially agreed over the phone to an in-person interview with New Times but later canceled, requesting instead that the paper submit questions in writing. "Look, we're a legitimate company," Parrillo said on the phone. "What you're getting is sour grapes because we've finally stepped up to the plate and used principle over just paying these things."

Indeed, United carries out the business of insuring differently from other well-known companies. Unlike, say, State Farm or Allstate, UAI doesn't hang out a shingle. Instead, the coverage is sold mostly by storefront brokers who offer cut-rate policies and who market to low-income drivers.

That's how Regina Jordan, a 45-year-old woman who lives in Lauderhill, ended up with United in the late 1990s. "I went into an agency to purchase insurance," says Jordan, a tiny woman who wears her hair swept up tight atop her head. A teacher's assistant in Broward County, she lives with a roommate in a modest townhouse apartment.

"I didn't have a whole lot of money, so I couldn't afford State Farm or Geico," she says. "I went into an agency... and they put me with United. They didn't give me an option. They looked at their screen and just told me what my deposit would be. That was that."

United Auto worked great for Jordan -- that is, until she actually had an accident.

Headed home from work on a midafternoon in February 2001, Jordan was traveling south on Highway 441, just south of Oakland Park Boulevard. Suddenly, a full-sized pickup crashed into the rear bumper of her 1996 Olds Aurora, setting off a chain reaction. She launched forward into her seat belt, but the car's defective airbag failed to inflate. Her car then slammed into the vehicle in front of her: a police squad car. Jordan snapped back into her seat.

"I was in a lot of pain," she recalls. Paramedics took her and other injured parties to Plantation General Hospital, where she was released a few hours later because she didn't have any broken bones. "The whole side of my face was swollen, and my neck -- I guess from the jerk." She holds out her tiny right hand, which is curved like a catcher's mitt. "I drive with my hand under the steering wheel," she explains, indicating she cradled the wheel between her thumb and index fingers. "When it hit, well, I don't know what all was hurt at that time, but this hand don't lay down anymore. It don't open all the way up, and it don't close all the way."  

So what did United do for her?

"Nothing but give me problems," she sighs, recalling the three months of work she missed, using up all her sick time. "I needed to get money. I sent United everything they asked me for. I was waiting for a check from them, but it never came."

In the meantime, Jordan hired an attorney, who eventually negotiated a settlement with the pickup driver's insurance company. She received $50,000 --an indication that at least one insurance company acknowledged that she suffered true injuries. United, however, wouldn't pay any bills under Jordan's PIP coverage. Jordan's attorney filed suit against United in February 2003. The case was settled this year with Jordan receiving $3,000 -- more than four years after the accident. o one denies that fraud exists in the no-fault insurance system. A Florida statewide grand jury in 2000 found that the $10,000 PIP coverage was easily exploited by unscrupulous medical providers.

For example, in 2003, the owner of Yosuni Medical Center Corp. in Miami conspired with four others to stage a triple-car accident to collect PIP claims. In other cases, fraudulent medical clinics hired "runners" to comb through police accident reports, then solicit drivers as patients, sometimes offering them kickbacks. Many states have done away with the once-popular no-fault coverage because of such practices.

United Auto, however, has taken the battle against fraud to absurd heights, claiming that 95 percent of all PIP claims filed are bogus. From that mindset has risen a huge backlog of unpaid claims. The tsunami of consumer complaints became so immense a few years ago that Florida's Office of Insurance Regulation looked into the company's practices, issuing a report in March 2004.

The study found a crescendo of pending, unpaid United PIP claims, from 29 in 1996 to 4,410 in 2002. Of the 6,034 claims made in 2002, only a miserly 88 had been paid.

As for United's contention that claim fraud runs at 95 percent, the report took the company to task for not reporting all those cases of fraud to the state -- as required by law. Of the 9,608 PIP claims United received during eight months in 2002, only 513, or about 5 percent, had been referred to the state's fraud unit.

"We have been unable to reconcile the company's assertion that 95 percent of its claims are fraudulent...," the report concluded. The state fined United Auto $75,000 for "the egregious nature of the failure to report fraudulent claims." Despite the company's written pledge to begin reporting those claims, the report notes, United referred only 18 claims from March through June in 2003.

Parrillo told New Times that the company didn't report them all because they were "too voluminous" and asserted that United had made a deal with the state "where we don't have to report every time, and they've agreed with us on that. They didn't have the staff to handle them. So rather than refer them all, we started investigating."

If so, no one let Belinda Miller in on the deal. As deputy general counsel for the Office of Insurance Regulation, her job in part is to see that United complies with the consent order Parrillo signed agreeing to report all fraud and pay all claims on time. She says United will continue to be required to refer allegedly fraudulent claims to state investigators.

Overall, the large fine had little effect on United's business practices. Since the beginning of 2003, Florida's Department of Financial Services has received more than 2,500 complaints about the company.

The current billow of pending, unpaid claims is partly quantified through an order written in July this year by Judge Edelstein, in Miami-Dade County Court. The order fixed the amount of legal fees and interest United had to pay -- the judge decided on $31,932 -- in a PIP lawsuit the company lost after dragging it out for three years.

"The volume of protracted PIP litigation is mind-boggling," Edelstein noted. "A printout listing of all the cases in which this defendant [United Auto] is a part in Miami-Dade County alone amounts to 755 pages and shows over 9,814 cases it defends." Most had been filed since 2002. United is a defendant in almost 500 cases in Broward County.

"It's almost as if the jury is an adjusting department," says Schurr, only half jesting.

Indeed, United Auto's adjusters -- the people who actually process claims and decide what to pay or not to pay -- would seem to have a hard time carrying out their basic jobs, much less detecting fraud. In one Broward County lawsuit, a United adjuster testified that the company does not provide oral instruction, training, a policy manual, or any other kind of guidelines for processing claims.  

Not essential or cost-effective, Parrillo said of such standard claims-processing tools. Claims processors are "supported by a state-of-the-art computer system and an extensive on-the-job training program."

or all of United's claims of others committing fraud, the company itself seems to have no problem taking the low road.

United frequently loses its cases in court, but that hasn't always meant the company is willing to pay what a jury or judge has ordered.

Barak, the Hollywood PIP attorney, recalls winning a default final judgment against United in court because the company's lawyers didn't show up in court. "They didn't want to pay, so I had to go through execution with the Miami-Dade Police Department Civil Process Bureau," Barak says. "I came out with two armed officers. Then they made us wait more than a half hour. I demanded to see the claims manager. I followed the two Dade policemen to the manager's office, where they then handed over a certified check to pay the judgment."

Barak took the opportunity to ask for the company's fax number, which he says United is loath to give out because faxing leaves a paper trail that makes it harder for the company to deny receiving correspondence.

"We don't give out the fax number," the employee said.

"Give the attorney your fax number -- now," one of the cops commanded forcefully, according to Barak. He got the number.

Schurr says that he and his law partner have collected money from United the same way many times. Parrillo says that in these cases, the company was considering appealing the final judgments, which angered certain attorneys who wanted immediate payment.

United routinely defies court orders, resulting in scores of sanctions against the company.

In February, Broward County Court Judge Robert Lee blistered the company for its courtroom misconduct in a lawsuit brought by Marlon Ellis, a United policyholder who was seeking $2,060 in lost wages as the result of an accident. For most of 2004, Ellis' attorney, Bradley Hartman, had been trying to get information from United, which asserted that it had already paid out Ellis' full benefits. The information the company supplied to prove so was "woefully inadequate and incomplete," Lee wrote in a court order. In August 2004, United was sanctioned $500 for not producing documents.

At one point, United filed two separate payment ledgers, but there were so many inconsistencies between them that Hartman requested copies of canceled checks. They were never produced. By February of this year, an exasperated Hartman requested a default judgment against United.

In granting that request, Lee lambasted the company:

"[United] has been sanctioned dozens of times by this court alone," the judge wrote. "Having now handled two different civil divisions and having had the opportunity to review hundreds of files from predecessor judges, [I'm] also personally aware that this defendant has been sanctioned dozens of times by other judges for similar conduct. The defendant itself, and not its attorneys, has paid thousands of dollars in sanctions. The client itself then must clearly be aware of the misconduct. And yet, the sanction of fees alone has been unable to remedy the defendant's misconduct."

If United wasn't intentionally ignoring court orders, Lee wrote, then it certainly was acting with "gross indifference" or "deliberate callousness." He ordered United to pay the plaintiff's legal fees. (Parrillo says that the company has been devoting "significant management expertise" to solve this problem.)

In one Broward case, United was sanctioned heavily after a jury ordered the company to pay $6,736 in PIP benefits to a driver who'd been rear-ended by a FedEx truck. As the judge was weighing whether to make the company pay the plaintiff's legal expenses, United was late in filing a response and falsified a date to cover up the delay. Judge Linda Pratt decried the ploy as a "negligent misrepresentation" and hit United with a sanction of $25,586 in legal fees.

With judges in both Broward and Miami-Dade counties starting to come down on United for abusing the court system, what's a poor fraud-hunting company to do?

For United, one tactic is apparently to seek goodwill from the men and women in black robes by offering them money.

During 2004, United, its sister companies, officers, affiliated insurance agents, and family members lobbed cash at certain candidates running for county judgeships in Miami-Dade. That didn't sit well with Ada Poza Revilla, who received $11,000 under United's family and friends plan. The campaign quickly refunded the money.  

"I think the main consideration was that it didn't seem right to take so much money from one entity or people connected to it," explains Steven Goldstein, who served as Revilla's campaign treasurer. "It was believed that there might be an appearance of impropriety as well."

Another candidate, Judith Rubenstein, received almost $12,000 in United-related contributions, which she kept.

Parrillo denies seeking influence. "The intent was to support judges for reelection and candidates for office who would render decisions based solely on the merits of the case and would not favor either the plaintiff or defendant," he said in a written response.

nited's delay and deny methods often leave policyholders hanging out to dry. For the average Joe who's been in an accident, that can mean creditors pounding at the door, garnished wages, and even bankruptcy.

Frank Morales, a 55-year-old steel worker with a full head of jet-black hair, lives in a working-class neighborhood in Carol City, which is just south of the Broward County border. "I'm a working man," he describes himself as he sips coffee at his dining room table. He speaks passing English but depends upon the Spanish he learned in his native Costa Rica, from where he immigrated a quarter century ago. He favors his right arm, which recently had surgery after he blew out a tendon yanking on an unwieldy metal bar at work.

"I live day by day on my salary," he says. "That's what I've done for 25 years." Around 2002, he purchased a United insurance policy to cover his two vehicles; the premiums ran about $1,200 a year.

On December 7, 2003, he pulled up to a stop sign near his home in his 1995 Ford Ranger pickup. "My truck was sticking out too much, and a car passed and crashed into my truck," he says. "I felt dizzy. I remember getting out of one door, and I laid on the ground. I passed out a little bit. I woke up in the hospital."

At Memorial Hospital West in Pembroke Pines, he was examined for broken bones and head trauma and released after a few hours. The bill came to $5,118. Morales provided United with a copy of the police report, his policy, and other documents.

"I went to their office in North Miami Beach, two, three times," he says. "There was an adjuster. I showed them a picture of my truck. I explained, what I want is for you to pay my bills. They told me, don't worry. But I started to see bills at my house. I received something from the hospital collection department."

He sent a certified letter to United notifying the company that the hospital was coming down on him for money. An adjuster told him not to worry, that the company would pay 80 percent of the bill and that Morales was responsible for the rest of the bill because of his deductible.

"They never sent me one letter saying, we are unable to pay. They never said anything like that. When I talked to the adjuster, he said everything was fine."

In early August of this year, he returned home one day to find a legal summons on his door from the hospital, notifying him that he had to pay the bill or a collection agency would garnish his wages and put a lien on his house. A year and a half had passed since the accident.

"They are a very" -- Morales struggles for the English word -- "irresponsible company. They lie to the people. They don't tell the truth face to face."

He recently hired an attorney who has sued United. United has made no contact or made any effort to defend Morales against the hospital's actions. It might be years before the case is settled.

ttorneys have filed thousands of lawsuits against United during the past few years, and during that time, the company's defenses for evading payment of claims have shifted like beach sand.

Outright claims of fraud used to be a United favorite for delaying or denying payment, says Marc Finkelstein, a Plantation attorney who specializes in PIP litigation. "They've kind of stopped doing it," he says. "Fraud is one of those defenses where you can't just say fraud; you have to state with specificity what the fraud was."

Schurr notes that United grasps at small contradictions to hang the label fraud upon. For example, a police accident report might have a check indicating that there were no injuries. "These are mostly soft-tissue injuries," he says, "so the extent of harm isn't always initially visible."  

"They claim that if the doctor treated one day longer than he should have, it's fraud," Schurr says. "That's just not right."

Finkelstein describes it as "a huge statutory bureaucratic morass of dotting i's and crossing t's, which United is very fond of making every medical provider do."

United's initial ploy is to ignore bills, according to medical providers who've dealt with the company.

Jason Marucci, a chiropractor at Marucci Wellness Center in Miami, is familiar with United's stalling tactics: He has outstanding unpaid PIP claims with United close to $800,000. A few years ago, United stopped paying claim forms that didn't have original signatures by both him and the patient. Other insurance companies allowed a form that stated, "Signature on file."

"We went through a period where we both signed the bills, and they still didn't pay them," Marucci sighs.

United sends most patients for an independent medical examination. "They get a doctor to second-guess the treating physician," Schurr says. "This doctor will spend ten minutes with them, whereas the treating physician has been treating them for two or three months."

"There's a small handful of doctors who make their living off this," says Richard Doherty, a Miami PIP attorney who has 60-odd cases pending against United. "They're presented as independent until the jury finds out how many they've done and how much money they're making from United doing this."

"You'll find that many of these doctors are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year giving United favorable opinions," Finkelstein says.

Marucci recalls a recent trial against United in which another doctor testified, at $500 an hour, that Marucci's treatment of a patient had been unnecessary. "At the end of the day," Marucci says, "my bill was $4,000. United paid the defense doctor $5,000 to testify. The jurors' mouths were hanging open." The jury found for Marucci after only ten minutes of deliberation.

United's recent défense du jour in lawsuits has been peer review. Under PIP law, United doesn't have to pay bills that are "unreasonable, unnecessary, or unrelated to the accident," Doherty explains. "They take the records of the treating doctor and send them to one of their guys, a peer reviewer, who supposedly determines whether all this treatment was necessary or not. They have one or two people they use hundreds of times, and the reports are always the same. It's a big abuse."

For example, peer reviewers strive to make sure that reasonable treatment is always within the policyholder's deductible, he says. "If the deductible is $2,000, then they say that $1,500 is reasonable," Doherty says.

Parrillo says that United has no way of knowing which doctors will be assigned for peer review, nor do the doctors know they're reviewing a United case.

udges, of course, must weigh each case on its own merits. It's not their job to regulate the business practices of insurance companies.

That task lies with the Florida Legislature; the state's Department of Financial Services, which is headed by Tom Gallagher, chief financial officer and a state cabinet member; and the Office of Insurance Regulation, run by insurance commissioner Kevin McCarty, whose position is appointed by the cabinet.

"The legislature, at this point in time, is friendly to the insurance industry, " Schurr observes. Indeed, United and its affiliates and family members have certainly helped curry favor by contributing more than $800,000 to legislators and political parties and by retaining four lobbyists. And the company stays on good terms with Gallagher, who last year attended a Republican fundraiser sponsored by United that was held in a luxury box during a Marlin's baseball game.

The legislature restructured the insurance regulatory departments in 2000 so that now, perhaps not accidentally, they exist in a strange vacuum. Gallagher receives complaints, and McCarty is charged with investigation -- and ne'er the twain, it seems, shall meet.

"Tom Gallagher doesn't have the power to do anything with United Auto," says Gallagher's spokesman, Bob Lotane. "He can scream and yell all he wants, but unless Commissioner McCarty acts on United Auto, there's nothing he can do or the governor can do." Lotane said that Gallagher himself was not available for comment.

Meanwhile, Miller, the deputy counsel under McCarty, seemed genuinely surprised to hear that United Auto had been delaying claims payments, which is a violation of its consent order. She said she'd look into the matter.

Many of the people interviewed for this article insist that Gallagher, as the state's CFO, could use his bully pulpit to rein in United. Barak, the Hollywood attorney, has written Gallagher often and recently informed him in writing that he has the "perfect case" for investigation.

In April 2004, Barak sued United on behalf of Dale Moulton, whose car four months earlier had been broadsided by a truck that ran a stop sign. Moulton racked up $7,225 in medical bills. United refused to pay but provided no reasons. Through all of last summer, Barak filed motions requesting information from United. Nothing was provided. Finally, in September, Judge J. Leonard Fleet, weary of United's behavior, slapped the company with a $5,000 sanction and ordered it to pay Moulton the money he had coming. Fleet noted that the company was "stonewalling" and had "deliberately engaged in dilatory tactics."  

But Barak had taken an unusual step in this case by suing both the doctor who performed an independent medical examination for United and the company that hired the doctor. Barak contends in court documents that the company that hired the doctor wasn't registered to do business in Florida and simply acted as United's "alter ego" by "using doctors who will provide ultra-conservative opinions, and in some cases, misrepresentative opinions." (Parrillo describes the "alter ego" assertion as "absurd.")

Barak also claims that the doctor "never physically examined or touched" Moulton's neck and that the doctor "intentionally failed to report the herniated discs to support his fraudulent medical opinion." The case is scheduled for trial in October.

"This is as clean a case as you'll ever see," Barak declares, hoping it will spark a serious investigation from Tallahassee. "They're taking hard-earned money from blue-collar workers, and when they need the company to pay, it's just not there for them," he says. "Shouldn't Tom Gallagher protect the public? Isn't that his job?"


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