Some thoughts on Progressive and Matt Fisher

By now, you’ve no doubt run across Matt Fisher’s blog post titled “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer In Court”. (If you haven’t yet seen Matt’s post, take a moment to read the original and his follow up). There have been lots of reactions to Matt’s story (to put it mildly), including over at Above the Law, where blogger “Juggalo Law” makes the following two observations:

1. Matt Fisher’s “grief is impossible for most, if not all, of us to imagine.”

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.

As an initial matter, this seems like a denial of even the possibility of empathy. Is ATL really arguing that it is “impossible” for people generally to even imagine another person’s grief in the wake of death? Except for the very young, virtually everyone has known someone who has died, and we each face the inevitable prospect of our own mortality. Of course no one besides Matt Fisher knows the precise contours his grief, but this is hardly a persuasive, blanket argument that humanity generally is incapable of even imagining what his grief is like.

Furthermore, the tragedy at issue here is a death caused by an automobile accident. While the number of motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. varies from year to year, during the years 1981-2010 it ranged from 49,301 (1981) to 32,885 (2010). In all, 1,268,122 people died over this 30 year span. Even in a nation of over 300 million, this is an enormous number. Matt Fisher’s loss of his sister is tragic, but, sadly, it is not unique.

2. Insurance companies are “inhuman” entities whose “existence…is predicated on their attempts to make money. ”

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.

Here, the ATL blogger seems to argue that insurance companies automatically get a pass for distasteful behavior because they are “inhuman” (with a strongly implied “what else do you expect?”). I think this approach lazily obscures rather than thoughtfully resolves any of the issues Matt Fisher’s personal tragedy raises. Obviously, the facts in this case are disputed and not fully known (at least publicly), and I have no personal knowledge of this matter. However, taking Matt’s original post and follow up clarification at face value, it is clear that Matt is not blaming Progressive for his sister’s death. Matt’s argument (and the general outrage) against Progressive boils down to these alleged facts:

  • Katie was a Progressive insurance customer with underinsured motorist coverage.
  • Katie was killed in an automobile accident with an underinsured motorist.
  • Asserting that Katie herself might have been responsible for the accident (in which case Progressive would have no legal obligation to pay under Maryland law), Progressive refused to pay what it owed under Katie’s policy to her surviving family members.
  • When Katie’s family went to court and sued the other driver to establish that he was liable for the accident rather than Katie, Progressive sent in its own lawyer(s) to help the other driver prove he was NOT liable.

So far as I can tell, the general outrage being directed at Progressive arises from this last assertion. I think most people understand that “fault” in auto accidents can be murky, and I think that many people would have understood if Progressive had refused to pay Katie’s policy until this issue was conclusively resolved by a court.

But that’s not why Matt’s post went viral. It went viral because he alleges, as he puts it in the title, “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer In Court.” The extreme outrage is not that an insurance company wanted to be 100% sure it owed money before paying out. The outrage is that (allegedly) an insurance company unleashed its lawyer(s) against its own customer. I agree with ATL that one generally expects auto insurance companies to “attempt[] to make money.” However, I submit that many do not expect auto insurance companies to proactively work against their own policyholders who are involved in accidents by making common cause with the other driver. It is one thing to dispute liability and force a court to sort the issue out. It is another thing to send lawyer(s) into the resulting lawsuit on behalf of the opposing side.

On the same day that Matt posted about Progressive, Bob Sutton blogged about how “United Airlines Lost My Friend’s 10 Year Old Daughter And Didn’t Care” (it’s as bad as you think, assuming the facts Bob recounts are all true). Bob narrates one part of the story in which the father is on the phone with a United employee located at the same airport as the lost 10-year-old, who was flying as an unaccompanied minor. When he “asked if the employee could go see if [his daughter] was OK,” she replied that she “was going off her shift and could not help. [He] then asked her if she was a mother herself and she said ‘yes’—he then asked her if she was missing her child for 45 minutes what would she do? She kindly told him she understood and would do her best to help.”

Bob writes:

This is the key moment in the story, note that in her role as a United employee, this woman would not help [the parents]. It was only when [the father] asked her if she was a mother and how she would feel that she was able to shed her deeply ingrained United indifference — the lack of felt accountability that pervades the system. Yes, there are design problems, there are operations problems, but the to me the core lesson is this is a system packed with people who don’t feel responsible for doing the right thing.

“Juggalo Law” titled its ATL post “Progressive Insurance Is Inhuman,” as if this fact excuses inhuman behavior. But just because corporations themselves aren’t people doesn’t mean their shareholders, managers, and employees aren’t. As Bob Sutton notes in his article on United Airlines, “a key difference between good and bad organizations is that, in the good ones, most everyone feels obligated and presses everyone else to do what is in their customer’s and organization’s best interests. I feel it as a customer at my local Trader Joe’s, on JetBlue and Virgin America, and In-N-Out Burger, to give a few diverse examples.”

Assuming the facts Matt alleges are true, Progressive clearly didn’t act in their customer Katie Fisher’s best interest. That’s not simply a sign that it wants to make money–or is legally organized as a corporation. If true, it’s a sign that it will act against its own customers whenever it can. Ironically, in a competitive marketplace, that approach is not in Progressive’s best interest. Indeed, the near-universal condemnation levelled at Progressive over the past few days suggests that such a narrowly self-interested approach is suicidal once it comes to light.

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