Holding the Insurance Industry Accountable
Injured bystander takes on insurance company and changes the law
In March 2005, Ethel Adams was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was driving lawfully and at the speed limit south along Highway 99 for her job.
At the same time, a man was driving north on Highway 99, furiously attempting to run his girlfriend off the road. He rammed the girlfriend’s truck across the centerline and into the southbound lanes. Four other cars crashed. The girlfriend’s pickup truck was forced into Ethel’s lane and slammed directly into her, squashing her car and knocking it backward into another truck.
Ethel had to be cut from her crumpled Hyundai Accent. She was in a coma for nine days, suffered collapsed lungs and 17 broken bones, spent a month in the hospital and another five months in a nursing home. Ethel must use a wheelchair or walker, and will never fully recover from her injuries.
Though Ethel had $2 million worth of coverage, Truck Insurance, a part of Farmers Insurance, refused to pay her medical expenses for massive injuries, claiming the wreck was the result of an intentional act, not an accident.
Her insurance company argued that, even though it was an accident to Ethel, the other driver intended to cause the accident on purpose so it was not an accident and the insurance company wasn’t required to pay.
After intense media pressure, public outcry and lawsuit threats from the Washington State Insurance Commissioner, the insurance company did pay for treatment of Ethel’s injuries.
As a result of this case, the “Ethel Adams Bill” passed in 2006 in Washington state. It changed the definition of an accident to be any occurrence that is unexpected and unintended from the perspective of the insured.
However, Ethel’s battle to make her insurance company answer for their actions did not stop there. Farmers refused to apologize and continued to justify its actions.
Ethel pursued a bad faith lawsuit against Farmers, but under Washington law, her remedies were limited. Farmers remained unrepentant because it knew any financial penalty would be nominal.
Farmers argued that she was paid on the policy so there was no harm. It said that the Consumer Protection Act did not apply because Ethel was not injured in her “business or property.” Farmers said her emotional distress was not related to its actions, but to her injuries.
Farmers eventually did settle the bad faith lawsuit. However, if Washington’s Insurance Fair Conduct Act had been in place at the time of her accident, requiring insurance companies to act in good faith, Ethel would never have had to go through this.