The Bad-Hands People

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.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson