HOUSTON — A courthouse backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving some car accident victims in legal limbo as they wait for their day in court to settle insurance claims and pay medical bills.
John Jansen is feeling that financial pain. He was walking his dog Bella in his Conroe neighborhood in pre-dawn darkness when a newspaper delivery driver ran over them as well as a neighbor and his dog.
“The next thing I woke up in the emergency room, didn’t know what happened,” Jansen said.
Jansen broke his back in two places that required surgery. He also damaged vertebrae in his neck and suffered serious knee and hand injuries.
“Knee brace, back brace, hand brace and neck brace for about three to four months,” Jansen said. “It was just excruciating for a long time.”
But the agony didn’t stop there. Insurance for the driver and the company she worked for didn’t cover all of the medical bills. So Jansen turned to his own insurance, Safeco, a Liberty Mutual company, thinking he was protected.
He had an “ultra-level protection” clause that included underinsured motorist coverage for $500,000 per accident.
But Jansen’s attorney said Safeco/Liberty Mutual made a low settlement offer that didn’t come close to covering his current and future medical bills.
“It was $15,000 on a $500,000 policy,” attorney Kevin Connolly said. “Pennies on the dollar without a doubt.”
Connolly sued Safeco Insurance/Liberty Mutual Insurance in Montgomery County District Court for negligence and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. He said he believes the insurance company is playing hard ball with that low-ball offer because of something that has nothing to do with the accident — the pandemic.
“Since corona hit, since the virus hit, insurance companies know that there is nothing a plaintiff's lawyer can do to get into court,” he said.
For months, the pandemic crippled civil courts, and they continue to play catch-up with COVID-19 delays. Connolly said the lawsuit won’t go to trial any time soon for a jury to determine and assess damages.
“Until that happens, they have no obligation to do anything. And there is nothing we can do,” he said.
The Austin-based consumer advocacy group Texas Watch said the case is just one example of an emerging trend during the pandemic—big insurance trying to capitalize on COVID-19.
“It’s disgusting to me frankly,” said Ware Wendell, executive director of the nonprofit. “It presents an opportunity for insurance companies to exploit those delays, to drag out the claims settlement process even longer, to take advantage of us just to pad their own profits."
In the interim, victims and their loved ones are left in limbo while medical bills continue to mount.
“They’re holding us hostage,” Jansen said. “All the coverage we thought we had, they’re just ignoring it.”
Jansen’s wife Kay Diamond said she feels betrayed.
“They’re just looking at us like, tough, you can’t do anything about it,” Diamond said. “I feel betrayed. I feel like they presented themselves as safe, trustworthy, take care of us, and I feel like they've been nothing but our nightmare.”
In court pleadings, Safeco Insurance/Liberty Mutual Insurance denies all of the allegations in Jansen’s lawsuit. A company spokesperson said it does not publicly discuss matters in litigation.