The Gecko Chamber

A lengthy legal battle against GEICO underscores Oregon's weak laws to protect consumers.

The creature is ubiquitous, one of the most easily recognizable characters on the planet. It should be: GEICO Insurance spends an estimated $1 billion a year on advertising, in large part to make people feel warm and fuzzy about a reptile with an English accent.

But Tuter, 67, a retired U.S. Bureau of Land Management employee from Roseburg, found out the hard way that relying on a lizard can be a big mistake. 

“I wasn’t getting what I paid for,” Tuter says. “I expected to be covered, and I wasn’t.” 

Tuter claimed in court that the insurance giant looked out for its own interests instead of his after he was in a car accident in 2007. 

Last month, a Multnomah County jury agreed with Tuter and hit GEICO with a $17.5 million judgment, one of the biggest in recent state history. 

"GEICO gets paid premiums, and for that, it promised to defend Mr. Tuter if something went wrong," says Don Corson, Tuter's attorney. "Instead, they put him through seven years of hell.” 

GEICO did not respond to WW's calls; the company's attorney on the case declined to comment.

Despite the win in court, Tuter's ordeal highlights a gaping hole in Oregon's consumer protection laws.  

Virtually all Oregon businesses must live under provisions of the state's Unlawful Trade Practices Act, which prohibits anyone from using an "unconscionable tactic" in commercial transactions. The law allows consumers to seek reimbursement for transactions with crooked car dealers, fly-by-night real-estate agents and even phony charities.

But insurance companies? They're off limits. Even when the insurance company is downright dishonest, state law still exempts them from unfair trade practices claims. Oregon is one of only four states that still allows insurance companies to slip away.

"Oregon is out of step with other states that allow consumers to hold insurers accountable," says Angela Martin, former director of Economic Fairness Oregon.  

A bill in the Legislature to bring Oregon's consumer protections in line with those of other states got only a cursory hearing this session before dying in committee, a testament to the power of Salem's well-financed insurance lobby.

Paul Cosgrove, a lobbyist for the American Insurance Association, says the bill would have generated unnecessary litigation and higher insurance rates. "The (Oregon) insurance division has lots of enforcement authority to require restitutions and issue fines and penalties if insurers do something improper," Cosgrove says.

Insurance companies' rates and policies are regulated by the state. But taking them on over how they handle claims can be daunting, if only because of their size.

GEICO, part of Warren Buffett's Berskshire Hathaway empire, is the nation's second-largest private auto insurer, with $32 billion in assets.

In August 2007, Tuter hit a motorcyclist in Klamath County. The biker racked up more than $68,000 in medical bills. Tuter had a GEICO auto insurance policy that covered him for up to $100,000 in damages. The motorcyclist, aware of the limits of Tuter's policy, agreed to settle for the $100,000.

GEICO refused. The company had nothing to lose and everything to gain. A settlement or a verdict in court cost GEICO $100,000 either way. If Tuter won in court, the company would owe nothing.

But court records show GEICO never told Tuter it had declined the motorcyclist's offer to settle. Tuter claimed as a result, GEICO exposed him to enormous risk, in what's called an "excess judgment." Tuter would be on the hook for any court judgment above his $100,000 policy limit. 

And that's what happened. In 2011, the motorcyclist won a $330,000 judgment in Douglas County Circuit Court. That left Tuter owing $230,000 (plus 9 percent annual interest). Tuter's salary was less than $50,000 a year. He found out only later that GEICO could have settled and saved him from the judgment.

In Washington, state law allows customers who believe they've been wronged by insurance companies to file a claim with the state insurance commissioner. If the claim is upheld, the insurance company has 30 days to fix the problem. If not, the customer can go to court and—if successful—get attorney's fees and triple damages. 

That's not the case in Oregon. So if Oregon's consumer laws didn't protect Tuter, how did he win the $17.5 million judgment against GEICO?

Tuter was able to sue under other provisions of law because his dispute wasn't just between him and GEICO, it involved a third party, the motorcyclist. And it still took him seven years to get a verdict.

“This was a really unusual set of circumstances,” Corson says. 

Still, Tuter will be lucky to see a fraction of the jury award. GEICO plans to appeal and could succeed in lowering the judgment. (By law, 70 percent of all punitive damage awards go to the state to help pay for a crime victims' fund and court operations.)

Advocates of extending consumer protections for Oregonians to include insurance companies say it shouldn't take such an unusual case to obtain justice.

"Insurance is one of the most important products an individual purchases," says Martin, the consumer advocate. “The shoes I bought last weekend  are covered by the Unfair Trade Practices Act, but home, auto and life insurance are not. We have this backwards.”  

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