Rear-End Crashes Not Always Cut-and-Dry

The accident wasn't her fault-- so why is she stuck with the bill?

Stopped at a yield sign on Chicago's Southside, Shirley Harris-Tarver says she didn't see the other car coming.

"Suddenly, BAM! There was an impact. I was hit from behind. I was hit pretty hard," she recalled.

Harris-Tarver says once she and the other driver traded information on that December day, she stopped worrying about the damage to her car.

"From my knowledge, any time you're rear-ended, it's the other party's fault."

That commonly-held and often-accurate belief about rear-end crashes for many motorists dates back to driver's ed.  But in cases like Harris-Tarver's, which seem clear-cut, one piece of information can flip that assumption on its head.

Case in point: when Harris-Tarver filed her $872 damage claim with the other driver's insurance company, Apollo Casualty, she got a denial. The reason? A blurb on the back of the police report, where the other driver told police the road was "icy and cold." Apollo based its denial on that information: that icy roads were to blame, not its driver.

"I don't remember it being wet out at all -- wet or icy or slippery -- I don't remember that at all," Harris-Tarver told NBC Chicago.

Indeed, experts at the National Climatic Data Center said conditions in Chicago around the time of the accident were cold and clear with no precipitation around the time of the accident.

And even if there was ice, it shouldn't matter, according to the Illinois Department of Insurance. The agency could not comment on the specifics of this case, but offered some general information.

"If they're driving accordingly, the accident would not occur. The fact there's ice on the road... that's a condition the driver should be aware of. The insurance company driving that car should pay for the damage caused to the other vehicle," said Department Director Michael McRaith.

But what should happen and what actually does happen are often two very diffferent scenarios.

"We can try to persuade, cajol, coerce the insurance company to pay that claim. We don't have the legal authority to require them to pay that claim," he explained.

In Illinois, two words can make all the difference. The term "comparative negligence" kicks in, meaning insurance companies and courts can consider all factors that may have played a role in an accident. Weather is one of those factors.

"Too often insurers will attempt to deny a claim based on weather conditions," McRaith said.

Is that what Apollo Casualty is doing in Harris-Tarver's case?

Apollo President Marvin Himmelstein said it doesn't have to pay in this case because its driver was not the primary cause of the accident. He pointed to icy roads as a contributing cause, and cited three recent court decisions which he said back up his company's position.

The Des Plained-based insurer is no stranger to consumer complaints. The Better Business Bureau gives Apollo an "F" rating; the state Department of Insurance has logged more than 400 complaints against it in recent years (2007 through 2010) and three times since 1993 cited Apollo with numerous violations of Illinois law.

The agency says Apollo has corrected the violations under supervision from the state.

Harris-Tarver has some hope her insurance company will be able to wrest from Apollo the money to fix her car. Otherwise, she says, she'll owe the $500 deductible on her policy, which she cannot afford.

There is some hope on the horizon for drivers in this kind of case: proposed legislation would mandate arbitration for insurance companies locked in a dispute over claims payment. Currently, the Department of Insurance says non-standard insurers deny and delay too often, taking an average of 249 days to settle a claim. Standard insurers take one-third of that time.

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