Old Jack City

There's no place like Miami for the car insurance runaround

It's true, accidents happen in other places. I could have been making that same left turn into my own driveway back in Ohio, say. Some impatient fool could have ignored my blinker and tried to pass me on the left up there too. He still would have plowed into my front end. The bumper on my Corolla would have crumpled just the same way. The steering knuckle would have buckled and the suspension would have gone to shit. All conditions being the same, an impatient driver anywhere would have ricocheted off my front end then slammed into the back of the surveyors' truck parked in front of my house.

Those are the laws of physics.

But that's where the similarities would end.

Because as it all goes down in my little slice of unincorporated Miami-Dade, just south of North Miami and north of Miami Shores, the man who can't wait for me to turn left can't afford car insurance either. He can't really even afford a car, at least not one of those cars they sell at licensed car dealerships for $239 a month or $150 a month or even $99 a month, not even with zero percent interest (which he wouldn't qualify for) and no money down (he'd still have to cover taxes and tag). And those dealerships require that you have insurance, to say nothing of a driver's license, which these days means you even have to have legal residence status.

Those are the laws of the INS, which as everybody knows discriminate against Haitians, especially under Dubya.

But in Miami everybody has to drive.

So when the man described by the police report only as a "5'9'' Haitian male" -- and by his compatriot and my neighbor, a light-skinned mechanic named Roger, as that "neg la" (black man) -- spots a broken-down blue 1990 Honda Accord with a For Sale sign parked on an oil-soaked square of pavement across from my house, he convinces Roger to let him take it for a test drive.

Sitting in the Honda in the seconds after the crash, it may occur to the 5'9'' Haitian male that 1) the police may arrive and ask troublesome questions and 2) it will cost more than the $400 he had in his pocket to repair the truck and the white lady's car and so 3) he will no longer be able to buy the Honda.

Better to just drive away.

The two surveyors and I watch as the Honda peels around the corner.

"Oye, te dio un píngazo al camión,bro-ther," says the skinny surveyor to his more substantial partner, conveying the impact on the truck with a phallic word heard only in Miami and Cuba. "Píngazo: He fucked up your truck."

Seeing me, he adds in English, "A dark blue 1989 Honda Accord with no plates."

An impressive demonstration of surveyor's acumen -- off on the model by just one year -- but then all that really matters is that there are no plates. No driver.

"But his friend is there," says Roger, hurrying across the street and pointing to a hulk in a striped shirt and a stocking cap. "He will tell us his name and where he lives."

The 5'9'' Haitian male steals the car, but leaves his friend behind!

By the time the police arrive, though, the friend is gone. Hopped a number two rumbling down North Miami Avenue.

The getaway bus.

But at least we have Roger.

"What are all those cars with no tags doing in front of your house?" the cop storms, after checking the scene.

Roger forgets English.

He stares as the officer surmises that the car is not stolen, that he's covering up for the missing guy.

Then, in mid-intimidation, the cop is called away to a real emergency. We wait to give our statements to a Public Service Aide, an officer who handles routine noncriminal matters.

"I knew this story before I got here!" announces PSA David Carrero as he eyeballs the scene. "They're in on this together!"

In on what?

To clear himself of whatever it is, Roger calls the woman who asked him to sell her Honda. She agrees to come to the scene to report the car stolen, despite Officer Carrero's stern warning that if it's not stolen, "You're in big trouble."

"Oh dear," she tells me when Roger holds his cell phone to my ear, "I was getting rid of that car so I took away the insurance last week."

Let's face it: Even if the police find the driver, he won't have the money to repair my car, especially if he goes to jail. And how realistic is it to expect money from the owner of a $400 car? I resign myself to paying the $500 deductible and taking whatever rate hike comes my way after my insurance pays my claim.


At least, that's how the scenario might have played out somewhere other than Miami.

But when I call the number on my Aries insurance card that evening, no one answers.

When I call again in the morning a smooth jazz track with an occasional flourish of chimes alternates in an eternal loop with a chirpy voice that says, "Aries also offers 24-hour claim service." Right. After about twenty minutes, a voice named Jeff takes my call. He takes my story. He gives me a claim number.

"Now please hold while I transfer you to an adjustor."

I hold. And hold. And hold. The smooth jazz track plays. The chirpy voice returns. The jazz. The chirp. Jazz. Chirp.

One hour passes. Then another. The phone is pinched between my shoulder and my ear.

Three hours after my initial call, a surly unidentified woman asks for my claim number. After a minute or two, she announces that that claim number is not yet in the computer.

"Call back in 24 hours," she tells me.

"But what about my rental car?" I ask.

"Call back in 24 hours."

I plead with her. Don't make me listen to that music again.

"I'm sorry, ma'am."

That was September 12. The hit and run was September 11 (I know). From then until October 8 I walk, take the bus, hop the jitney, bum rides, hire cabs, rent cars. Whenever I have three or four hours to spare, I call Aries.

On Wednesday morning, September 18, a woman named Isa walks me confidently through the process: An appraiser will come to my house for an estimate (he does, on Friday, September 19); I'll take the estimate to an auto shop (I do, on Monday, September 22). Then Aries will pay the shop (it doesn't).

On September 25, I'm told the adjustor has just received the estimate (how come Ireceived the estimate by fax on September 19th?). On September 27 I'm told the estimate is waiting to be approved. On October 2 the car is ready. But that day a woman at Aries named Ileana tells me that the adjustor has just received the estimate. Are these people lying to me?

Ileana cracks, her voice as desperate as my own.

"We're in rehabilitation, ma'am. The state took over [the business] because there was too much PIP fraud," she reveals, meaning Personal Injury Protection, the coverage of up to $10,000 for immediate medical costs no matter who is at fault. Turns out Miami has long led the state in PIP fraud, with people deliberately causing or faking accidents and clinics inventing clients just to collect. "Your claim is moving relatively quickly," Ileana insists. "Some have been sitting here for months."

Months! I call my agent, who gives me the number for the Florida Department of Insurance in Tallahassee. A man with an accent as thick as gator soup gives me the bad news.

"It sounds like you're gettin' the runaround, ma'am, because they don't have any money," he drawls. "I can understand that this sounds distressing to you, but you must understand that you will be paid. It may take a year, but you will be paid."

Seems I was not the only one getting the runaround. In a statement released by the Florida Department of Insurance on November 8, State Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher says, "Because of the delay tactics employed by Aries' principals and their attorneys, body shops are threatening to sell policyholders' cars for nonpayment." The solution for a company with $50 million in assets and $100 million in liabilities? According to Gallagher, "Aries should do the right thing and agree to be liquidated."

Is it true the company's failure is due to Miami's high fraud rate? "Well, that's part of it," says DOI spokeswoman Nina Bottcher, "but we are investigating."

The DOI attempted to rehabilitate Aries beginning last May, processing between 600 and 800 piled-up claims a week in order of urgency. Medical needs are addressed first, says Bottcher, then hardship cases.

"Like a mother with three kids and one car in the shop," she says.

Wait a minute, I'm a single mother with one car in the shop. No one ever asked me about hardship!

Bottcher sighs. "It's not a perfect situation, clearly, or the company wouldn't be in rehabilitation."

But are these people trained to give clients the runaround?

Bottcher breaks down; she asks for my claim number.

The next day I receive a call from my adjustor, Liliana Velez, to say she has my check in the works. Coincidence?

"Isn't that funny," says Bottcher later that afternoon. "All I did was say I wanted to know what was going on with that claim."

While I wait for my check, I see Roger repairing a Volvo across the street and a Sentra for sale around the corner.

"That situation over there is always going to be a problem," says a sympathetic Officer Carrero when I call to ask him about the police report. Will the police do anything about it?

"I think it's Team Metro that handles that type of thing," Carrero says.

Do informal repair shops and car lots hurt legitimate auto businesses in the area? Tony Menfi, the owner of the shop that fixed my car, isn't too worried. "I guess so," he laughs, gesturing toward all the county certificates on the wall. "You're supposed to have all your licenses, but walk down any street in Miami and you're going to see one or two cars up on jacks."

Just like my street. When I walk to the corner, Roger tells me that he recently sold a truck and a BMW and has plans to sell his current ride, a Ford Probe. But when I ask him if his clients pay in cash he smells trouble.

"You're putting all this in the newspaper?" he says, squinting. "Let me be clear. I do not sell cars. I do not fix cars. I do not have a dealership. Look over there, I don't got room for cars."

And that is the unenforced law of the county.

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