You're in Grabby Hands

Allstate doesn't need much evidence to accuse their own customers of arson and fraud ... and save themselves a few thousand bucks

On March 7, after a long evening spent recording music with a friend, Tim and Kelly Mead got home around 2:30 a.m. An unfamiliar Chevy was parked in front of their South City bungalow, so they parked their '88 Plymouth Grand Fury -- a "cream puff" with 60,000 miles that had belonged to Kelly's grandfather -- across the street.

Five or six hours later, Tim dragged himself out of bed, because another friend was going to help him work on the Fury's brakes. He went outside and -- the car was gone.

That afternoon, the police found it several blocks away, parked by Volpi Salami on the Hill. A deliberately set fire had burned up the interior. There was a hole where the trunk lock had been. And Tim's music equipment -- a guitar effects processor, eight-channel mixing board, drum machine, two speakers, four microphones, five cables, some tools and mike stands -- was gone.

The Meads only had liability insurance on the car, so it was a total loss. But their homeowner's insurance -- also with Allstate -- should have covered the equipment. They filed a claim and started visiting pawnshops every Saturday, hoping that a piece of the equipment would turn up. The police didn't hold out much hope of solving the crime, because car thefts and burnings are common, often random and impossible to trace.

The Meads dug up old receipts and went through guitar magazines, estimating the replacement cost of the equipment at $4,285.82 (before their $500 deductible). They took examinations under oath. They later offered to take a polygraph but got no response.

On Nov. 4, Allstate wrote to "respectfully reject your proof of loss and deny your claim" -- and went on to accuse the Meads of arson and fraud.

"The first thing I did when I read that letter was throw up," recalls Kelly. She's filing a formal appeal and consulting the Missouri Department of Insurance and the Missouri Bar Association. Tim -- who was ready to give up months ago, when Allstate asked them to produce everything from grocery receipts to cable bills -- is now mad on principle. "What surprises me is that they are not saying, 'Well, because you did not have a special rider on your policy,' or, 'Because your homeowner's does not include this.' That would be normal insurance stuff, and we'd let it die. But I can't believe they would accuse us of a crime. I'm concerned that I'm being smeared somehow."

The police didn't charge the Meads; neither did the fire department accuse them. So Allstate must know something the authorities don't. But when the Meads asked for details, they were told the reasons were all in that Nov. 4 letter.

"Investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding your claim has led to a reasonable belief and conclusion that the fire at issue was intentionally set by you, at your direction, or with your knowledge or consent," the letter states. As if that weren't enough, it also discloses "a reasonable belief and conclusion that you have intentionally concealed and/or misrepresented material facts and/or circumstances" and "made false statements in this investigation at your examination under oath and otherwise." The clincher: "You have failed to cooperate with the investigation of your claim as required by the policy of insurance."

Granted, insurance companies are forced to suspect everyone, and their suspicions are often justified. But Tim and Kelly Mead have steady jobs (she's a biotech-laboratory worker at Washington University; he supervises the mailroom at MagneTek and plays guitar with a couple of local bands when he's not in computer classes). Their employers readily vouch for their integrity. They have three daughters in gifted programs. They don't have criminal records. "Tim has two tickets, I have one -- that's the extent of our criminal behavior," Kelly says wryly. Their only past claim with Allstate was a small one: Kelly went past "off" and turned the stove up to "high," boiling away all the chicken-and-dumpling water and causing a near-fire whose chicken-protein smoke messed up their walls. Allstate paid a cleaning company, and Kelly says she even called the adjuster over because she was worried they'd been overcharged, because she'd done most of the cleaning herself.

The Meads' record is, in short, far better than Allstate's. In just the past five months, a California court has found they wrongfully refused to pay an earthquake claim; the Indiana Department of Insurance has accused them of unfair claim settlement; a Connecticut lawsuit has charged them with unfair practices, citing a flyer encouraging people to settle their claims before consulting an attorney; and 20/20 has featured them in an investigative report.

But let's ignore the history and assume the worst: The Meads hated the Fury (which they were carefully keeping smoke-free for their asthmatic 16-year-old) and coveted a new car. They figured the money they'd get for the equipment would more than make up for the loss of the car and the cost to tow it off the lot where it was burned. So they stealthily sold a miscellany of tools and music equipment, some of it old, to scam the estimated $3,785.82 replacement value.

It's not much of a scam.

Did the Meads fail to cooperate? Kelly says Allstate took a taped phone statement, sent someone out, then sent forms for them to fill out. She says she warned them that she was bogged down with taxes, so it would take a few weeks to get all the receipts, estimates, and so on together. She did so in mid-April. The Meads were told they'd have to submit to examination under oath, at a mutually agreed-on time, but heard nothing further until June 12. Kelly says she was told the paperwork had been buried on the lawyer's desk. When Allstate finally sent a letter, they announced that the exam had been scheduled for early July -- smack in the middle of the Meads' vacation.

They rescheduled for June 18. The day before the exam, they received a letter (the letter is dated June 12, but the envelope is postmarked June 15) directing them to bring years of grocery-store receipts, tax documents,bank statements, credit-card statements, doctor bills, prescriptions, recreation expenses, utility bills and more.continued on next pagecontinued from previous page"I called and said, 'This is an unbelievable list; there's no way I can get all this together by tomorrow,'" recalls Kelly. "We'd already signed papers giving Allstate the right to look into anything they wanted -- they could have accessed any of these records themselves. But when I said that, the adjuster said, 'Why should I put together your claim for you?'"

At this point, Kelly also took the advice of a lawyer friend and asked for a weekend appointment so she and Tim wouldn't have to take time off from work. Then they received a letter from Allstate's lawyer saying, "It is my understanding that you have declined to provide any further assistance in the investigation of this claim."

Meanwhile, Allstate had proposed, once more, an early-July date in the middle of the Meads' announced vacation. Finally, they agreed on July 18. The Meads brought a 10-inch-high stack of documents. (Kelly couldn't produce the grocery receipts; she doesn't save them.)

In August, she says she called to ask, "What next?" and was told Allstate hadn't received their corrected, notarized depositions. She pointed out that Allstate hadn't sent them the depositions; that's why she was calling. When the depositions arrived, the Meads went through them and signed, and mailroom supervisor Tim swears he sent the corrected, notarized copies by Priority Mail the Friday before Labor Day. That time, Allstate said they didn't receive the box. So the process started over again, and this time the Meads sent them UPS Overnight, signature required. Allstate's lawyers, who coordinated the depositions, would have received the box Nov. 4.

That's the date on the letter sent by Allstate's claims office, rejecting the claim. "The agent told me we took too long to send back the paperwork, so we must have been afraid of something," says Kelly, gritting her teeth.

Given that any physical evidence is burned or gone and the authorities filed no suspicions of the Meads, Allstate's "investigation" of fraud must rely pretty heavily on those 60-page depositions. What's in them?

Well, there are discrepancies. Tim, trying for choirboy, said he often tries to park up in their little drive because it seems more secure. Kelly said they never park there. ("There's not really a drive," she explains, "so it looks like you're parking on the grass, and sometimes one of the cars does get parked there and I get really pissed off.") Because Kelly handles all the finances, Tim was a little fuzzy about bills; he didn't even realize that the braces straightening two of their three daughters' teeth are partially covered by insurance. More significantly, they weren't sure which of them actually dialed the police that morning. They say they both ended up talking in turn on the cordless, and Tim walked outside with it to look around more closely.

The most potentially damning point comes toward the end: Four months after an incident he'd already mentally written off, Tim wasn't sure whether he found the bits of curved metal that could've come from the steering column before or after talking to the police. Perhaps that made it look as if he broke the steering column himself?

Allstate's examiner also grilled the Meads about their finances: How much of Kelly's recent student loan was Pell grant? Why did they borrow from Tim's 401(k)? Here, the damning fact was probably the Meads' credit-card debt; in April, when they were preparing to buy a new car, they refinanced their house and borrowed $15,000 from Tim's dad to wipe out almost $20,000 in credit-card debt, the incentive being their need to qualify for an unanticipated car loan. But the alleged "scam" would have contributed a bare fourth of the sum; Kelly's second job at Schnucks adds more. And, had they been that troubled by credit-card debt, wouldn't they have broken the law during all those single-income years in the mid-'90s while Kelly was earning her college degree?

It's hard to say just what Allstate knows or found -- their claims adjuster, Kevin Green, responds to questions with, "I'm not going to say anything about that. You can talk to our attorneys." Attorney Bob Cockerham of Brown & James won't even say what generic kinds of evidence they use to make such assessments: He cites client-attorney privilege and says with finality, "There is nothing we could provide you."

So we're back to the deposition, back to hypothetical greed. The examiner sure perked up when Tim mentioned recently purchasing a cube amplifier: "Those are a little pricey, aren't they?"

"No," replied Tim, "I bought it at a pawnshop." Came across it, he added pointedly, while he was looking for his stolen equipment.

About that equipment: Surely it's a suspicious amount to leave in a trunk? "It took me a while to figure out how to pack all that crap in there at one time," agreed Tim, who by then had a fierce headache. He mentioned the expensive stuff and then trailed off vaguely; maybe it looked suspicious that he didn't itemize the cables and tools again? His wife says Tim's got four times as much stuff in the basement; he's been an equipment junkie since she met him. In reality, she adds, he often leaves it in the trunk rather than schlepp it back and forth in plain sight of potential thieves. Mary Ryan, who lives across the street, says her son's car was stolen and burned years ago.

Did Allstate really find enough evidence to justify accusing the Meads of arson and fraud? Well, there's one more financial detail their investigation would have revealed: The Meads don't have the liquid savings to hire a lawyer. So, because their case isn't big enough to seduce one to take it on contingency, they'll have to fight it through official channels. Meanwhile, Tim keeps remembering a remark made by an oncologist who plays in a band with him: "Don't take me wrong, but if this happened to me, the claim would be taken care of.

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