If you were on the internet at all yesterday, you likely heard about this. Your mom probably posted it on her Facebook wall and a thousand of your tweeps probably hit you up on the Twitter to register their outrage. On Monday, a comedian by the name of Matt Fisher wrote a post on his tumblr account titled “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer In Court.” What resulted was an outpouring of rage and hive-minded moralizing that has become the internet’s stock in trade. A great injustice had been done and, dammit, the internet was going to save the day. Or at least tweet about the day. Even Wil Wheaton made an impassioned cameo in the great shoutathon, presumably because a cameo is the best Wil Wheaton can hope for these days.
And this great unwashed mass of outrage went to sleep last night and slept like babies, secure in the smug knowledge that they had done good. Of course, the picture that was so broadly painted yesterday didn’t do justice to anyone. Progressive Insurance is not evil and the Internet remains a cesspool of pornography and legal blog posts. Matt Fisher did a pretty solid number on Progressive Insurance; this is true. They’ve taken a great PR hit, and most coverage of the whole affair has quickly moved on from any sort of analysis of the actual claim itself to a much easier consideration of how, and in which ways, Progressive Insurance is royally f**ked.
This is a shame….
As he details on his Tumblr page, in June 2010, Matt’s sister was killed in Baltimore when another car allegedly ran a red light and crashed into her vehicle as she crossed through the intersection.
According to Matt, the other driver’s insurance company settled with his sister’s estate “basically immediately,” but because that driver didn’t have much insurance, there wasn’t much to be gotten from his insurance company. However, Matt’s sister had a Progressive policy that he says was intended to protect her in the case of the other driver being under-insured.
But Matt claims that Progressive refused to pay out that policy. Left without other legal avenues to pursue, he says that his family sued the other driver in order to establish his negligence, which they could then use as leverage to compel Progressive to pay they believed was owed.
This is where things get a bit murky. The basic thrust of Matt’s tumblr post, that Progressive represented Katie’s “killer,” seems to stem from the fact that Progressive Insurance helped, in some way, in defending the driver who killed Katie Fisher. Progressive denied late yesterday that they had acted as counsel for the driver being sued, but that can understandably be parsed in any number of ways that are largely meaningless to the layman trying to sort out blame for this whole mess. According to Matt Fisher, Progressive had a lawyer in the courtroom who “argued that my sister was responsible for the accident that killed her, and that the jury should not decide that the defendant was negligent” — presumably so that Progressive would not have to pay out on Katie Fisher’s policy.
It’s worth noting that the accident occurred in Maryland, which is a contributory negligence state — meaning that if Katie Fisher was even slightly responsible for the accident, her estate would not be able to recover. Those currently taking Torts can skip over the following explanation from an excellent summary of the matter on The Consumerist:
“That means that if you are even 1% at fault for the accident you are barred from any recovery,” [an auto insurance] expert explains, adding that most states have laws that look at comparative negligence in determining payouts.
“In most states, you can collect if you are up to 50% at fault but only the portion that you are not responsible for,” she tells Consumerist. So if you were 40% at fault, you can collect 60% of your damages.
Here is an excerpt from Progressive’s (somewhat cryptic) statement on the case:
To be very clear, Progressive did not serve as the attorney for the defendant in this case. He was defended by his insurance company, Nationwide.
There was a question as to who was at fault, and a jury decided in the Fisher family’s favor just last week. We respect the verdict and now can continue to work with the Fisher family to reach a resolution.
The whole mess is just that, a mess. You have as good a chance of figuring out exactly what happened in all of this as you do of winning tonight’s Powerball. I highly recommend reading The Consumerist article posted above (or this one from earlier yesterday), as anything I add to the facts of this controversy will be as suspicious as my grade in Torts would suggest.
What I do know is that the response to Matt Fisher’s tumblr post is as offensive as it is ignorant. As mentioned above, child actor Wil Wheaton played a pivotal role in fanning the flames, and his conduct sums up the reaction of the Internet perfectly. After Progressive Insurance issued a series of businesslike tweets about the outrage, CNN reports:
Former Star Trek actor and geek culture icon Wil Wheaton ran the repetitive tweets through text-to-speech software, producing a soulless robotic voice. “Dear Progressive Insurance PR Bot: This is what you sound like, you inhuman monster,” he wrote. More than 21,000 people played the recording, and hundreds shared it on Tumblr and other social networks.
To which I can only say, relax. He could be a deity in geek culture, but that still wouldn’t make Wil Wheaton’s hyperventilating response to the Fisher family’s sadness any more coherent.
Katie Fisher died in a car crash and her brother lashed out at the insurance company that made life for her surviving family more difficult. Matt Fisher’s overwrought tumblr post can be excused by the fact that, you know, his sister died in a car crash. His grief is impossible for most, if not all, of us to imagine. And yet thousands of people put on their imagineering hats and did just that.
Sometimes, life deals you a sh**ty hand. Death, however, always does. And yet, those stuck behind will undoubtedly encounter a world that barely shrugs in acknowledgement. And that’s how it should be. You will still be asked if you want a coffin with gold plating and you may be asked if you want your loved one’s ashes compressed into a beautiful diamond that you can wear around your neck for a lifetime. And all the mundane features of our economy will seemingly laugh at your grief. But they’re not laughing and insurance companies and all of the other businesses that survivors must joust with aren’t “inhuman monsters.” They’re merely inhuman. And they will follow protocol and attempt to minimize their own exposure as much as is possible. The existence of insurance companies is predicated on their attempts to make money. And nothing in this case suggests that their actions were borne out of anything other than this absolute truth.
While the ignorant rabble takes aim at the black-hatted insurance companies, there is also another implied villain in all of this. It is the mere presence of a lawsuit and lawyers that underpins much of the angst over the Fisher family’s plight. This is disappointing. As all of us are aware, and as some of our paychecks reflect, lawsuits are an omnipresent, and necessary, feature of doing business. And when that business deals with death, the lawsuits that arise out of that business may seem unseemly. The sage advice of Atticus Finch is beyond hackneyed, but that’s only because it’s true. Everyone deserves a lawyer. Even big, bad Progressive Insurance.
What the Fisher family has gone through is beyond sad, and if anything I’ve written here seems too trite or caustic given the circumstances, all apologies. A post with the byline “Juggalo Law” has as much chance of conveying the proper tone in affairs such as this as an insurance company does. Zero.
My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer In Court [Premium Fisher]
Why Would The Victim’s Insurance Company Defend The Other Driver In A Fatal Car Accident? [The Consumerist]
After Woman Dies In Car Crash, Brother Says Her Insurance Company Defended Other Driver In Court [The Consumerist]
Progressive Denies Defending Driver Who Killed Policyholder In Crash [The Consumerist]
Progressive robo-tweets spark social media crisis [CNN]
Statement on the Fisher Case [Progressive Insurance]