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Progressive Spies on Personal Injury Victims

How far is too far? Personal injury lawyers have always known that insurance companies might hire investigators to follow their clients. But a new story shows just how far some companies are willing to go.

Last week, the Atlanta Journal Constitution broke a story that started:

When a new couple arrived at Southside Christian Fellowship in August 2005, members welcomed them with open arms. Soon, the new couple talked their way into private group support sessions…During the private talks, church members confessed abortions, sexual orientation issues, drug addictions and other dark secrets. No one knew the couple wasn’t actually interested in joining the church. Instead, they were private investigators hoping two church members…would spill something they could use to discredit the pair in an ongoing lawsuit over a traffic accident. The private eyes even tape-recorded the sessions.

Even more appalling, the leader of the group, who says he has led the group for over twenty years, said that each session started with a statement that whatever was said in the room would remain private.

This conduct eventually led to a lawsuit against Progressive (the insurance company), its lawyers, and the private investigators and an investigation into the conduct by the Georgia Department of Insurance.

The real question is how far is too far?  It’s accepted, even in a town like Austin where the lawyers mostly get along, that personal injury clients might be taped.  But what is the line on acceptability?  It’s pretty obvious that this conduct crosses the line.  Even Progressive issued an apology for the conduct (though the investigators seem to maintain they acted properly). But where should the line be drawn?  That’s the harder question.

The other irony in these situations, at least in our experience here in Austin, is that videotaping victims rarely works.  Most of the time, the video footage actually documents that the personal injury victim really was hurt. Or, the private investigator ends up testifying that they watched the person for days to find the 20 second video that supposedly shows the client’s not hurt.  Those type of results are often more helpful to the personal injury victim’s lawyer than to the insurance company.  So it is almost mind-boggling that Progressive would engage in such improper conduct when the payoff is usually so low.

Thanks to the New York Personal Injury Blog and the California Personal Injury and Insurance Blog for the heads-up.

Mark Perlmutter and Brooks Schuelke are Austin, Texas personal injury lawyers.

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