By Russ and Tiña De Maris
Scene: A federal district courtroom in California.
Issues: Insurance company essentially asks judge to toss out an RV owner’s loss-by-theft claim.
Disclaimer: We don’t know everything about this story (we never claimed to be mind readers), but the facts of the case, lifted from court records, do paint an interesting — if not thought-provoking — picture.
History: On Monday, November 10, 2014, Progressive Insurance received a report of a stolen 1961 GMC diesel pusher motorhome from its owner, John Cordell Young, Jr. Young told Progressive his rig had vanished. It didn’t take long for the rig to surface — well, sort of. Police found the missing motorhome the same day, in a canal. Oddly enough, the steering wheel of the rig was tied up with a rope, and a stick was neatly wedging down the accelerator pedal. Missing from the rig were its license plates and VIN number plate.
Mr. Young had made an agreement with Progressive that the rig’s replacement cost would be $63,000 — and there was a zero-dollar deductible for such a claim. It didn’t take long for the company to decide it needed to do a little more investigating before cutting Young a check.
Did you know that Progressive has a “special investigations unit”? Picture the gang from CSI working for Flo and you’ve properly connected the dots. And just like TV shows, cell phone records soon became a pivotal point that would decide whether or not Young got his payoff. When the phone records for John Young III — the insured’s son — were scrutinized, Progressive’s PIs noticed that at 4:03 a.m., the morning the rig mysteriously vanished, there was a ping from a cell tower — the one closest to the canal where the “missing” motorhome went swimming.
The lad’s father was quick to tell insurance investigators that he figured the boy’s cell phone had pinged off that tower simply because the phone had been inadvertently left in one of his customer’s vehicles over the weekend. Mind you, the motorhome was reported stolen on a Monday. However, the younger Young told investigators he thought he had his phone that weekend, and he couldn’t think of anyone else who’d be using his phone at that time. Both the boy and his father testified to their answers under oath. Further sifting of cell phone records showed the son’s phone had been used from the Friday prior to the reported loss, right on through the weekend, both near the family home, and in Modesto, about five miles away.
Eight months after John Young Jr. filed his claim with Progressive, the company turned him down, and Young then sued Progressive for breach of contract. How would the court rule? Recently, the decision came back.
While the court didn’t task itself with determining who dipped the diesel pusher, it did agree with Progressive’s reasoning behind denying the claim. Read the fine print in your insurance policy, and you’ll likely find a clause that reads something about making a “material misrepresentation with regard to a claim.” In this case, Progressive told John Young to take a running leap off the dock as he had lied to them about the son’s cell phone being in a customer’s vehicle the weekend the motorhome was “stolen.”
Was the deceit about where the phone was really “material” to the case? The judge found it to be so. Identifying where Young’s son was at the time the motorhome was stolen was “directly relevant to establishing that the motorhome had indeed been stolen or if it had been intentionally sunk by its owner.” You lie, your claim dies.
Young’s claim was essentially washed up, leaving him without the $63,000 and with a washed-up motorhome. And who knows — there could be a criminal investigation to follow.