Bamboozled: Hardly a case of fraud, just of $850 oversight

After his car was hit by a truck, Tom Norman thought he did the right thing. He settled with the trucking company’s insuranceBB branding company, received a check for the damages and had repairs done. When Norman picked up his car, he paid the bill and left.

To his surprise, Norman received an additional bill more than a month later from the body shop, Boulevard Body and Fender in Hawthorne.

“It was a full month after I paid them and picked up my car, and they wanted more money,” said Norman, a 26-year-old student at Montclair State.

In a letter sent with the bill, Boulevard suggested Norman was committing insurance fraud because he received a larger insurance settlement than he paid for repairs.

Norman felt bullied, big time, so he contacted Bamboozled for help.

HOW IT WENT DOWN

The accident happened last November. Norman’s 1997 Toyota Avalon sustained damage to the left door and bumper.

Norman immediately reported the accident to his insurance company, Esurance. He then contacted the trucking company’s insurance company, NTA Inc., which told him to get two repair estimates. He sent the estimates for $3,631.10 and $2,462.73 to the company, signed a release and was sent a check for $2,462.73 — the lesser of the two.

Norman informed Esurance of the settlement, and the customer service rep recommended he get another estimate from a shop on Esurance’s preferred list: Boulevard Body and Fender.

Norman visited Boulevard in late November and received a far lower estimate, $1,741.96, so he jumped on it. He scheduled the work at Boulevard and pocketed the difference between the settlement check and the shop’s estimate.

The work was done in a week. On Jan. 15, Norman picked up the car, paid the $1,741.96 with a personal check and went home, ready to move on.

Not quite.

Five weeks later, he received the letter from Boulevard stating he owed an additional $850.53 for the work — in total, more than the insurance company had paid him.

“It was my understanding that the final bill was what I paid when I picked up my car,” Norman said. “If I had known it would have been more, I would have never taken it there in the first place.”

WHY A BIGGER BILL?

A bill coming after the fact should raise eyebrows. Many drivers handle accident claims and repairs directly through their insurance companies, so once their deductibles are paid, they don’t necessarily pay attention to the final cost.

Turns out it’s quite common for so-called supplemental charges to be billed after work is completed on a vehicle that’s been in an accident. That’s because while shops try to offer accurate estimates, it’s impossible to know the extent of damage until a mechanic gets under the hood.

That’s what happened here.

Boulevard had in its records that Norman’s insurance company was Esurance. When the work was completed, it sent the supplemental bill to Esurance, which told the shop it didn’t handle the claim.

That’s why the shop billed Norman.

“As is common with most people, Mr. Norman was unaware of aspects specific to the insurance repair process, particularly how supplemental damages are handled,” said Kristin Brewe, an Esurance spokeswoman.

WHAT NOW?

Norman made two errors. First, when he made the deal with the trucking company’s insurance company, he signed a release stating that after he received the agreed-upon payment, the company would not be responsible for any future charges related to the accident. Instead, Norman should have waited until the work was completed to make sure all costs were covered.

Second, he signed but didn’t carefully read paperwork with Boulevard stating he’d take financial responsibility for the repairs.

The body shop made mistakes, too. Had it called Norman when the repairs were being made, Norman would have known about the additional charges much sooner. The shop also mistakenly assumed Norman was going through his insurance company.

“All he said to me was that he received a check, and I was under the impression he got it from Esurance,” said James Hardt, manager of Boulevard Body and Fender. “I took photos and wrote the repair as an estimate, not a contract, which is a normal procedure in this industry because you never know what you’re going to come in with until you start the job.”

Plus, the shop’s accusation of insurance fraud put Norman on the defensive. So, when it tried to collect, Norman wasn’t eager to respond.

There was no insurance fraud in this case.

“If he found someone cheaper to do the work, that’s his prerogative and what people do with the check is up to them,” said Keith Dunlap, the owner of NTA Inc., the trucking company’s insurer. Dunlap noted Norman could have gone on vacation with the money if he so chose.

Norman didn’t spend the money on margaritas while basking in the sun, but instead bought textbooks for school.

Today Norman has two options. He can contact NTA to ask if it would cover the charges. That’s a long shot, though, because of the signed release.

Next, he should contact Boulevard and ask if the shop would accept a payment plan for the remaining balance. The shop might rather be paid slowly than not at all, and Norman shouldn’t risk tarnishing his credit.

The lesson here is to always read every agreement you sign. Don’t sign when you’re in a rush, and never sign a document you don’t fully understand. If you’re not sure what it means, ask your insurer or someone you trust for help.

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