If you are injured in a minor car crash, chances are good that you will be in the fight of your life to get the insurance company to pay all the medical costs you incur -- even if the accident was no fault of your own.
That's what CNN discovered in an 18-month investigation into minor-impact soft-tissue injury crashes around the country. Those are accidents in which there is little damage to the vehicle and the injuries to people are not easy to see by the naked eye or conventional medical tools like X-rays.
Since the mid-1990s, most of the major insurance companies -- led by the two largest, Allstate and State Farm -- have adopted a tough take-it-or-leave-it strategy when dealing with such cases.
The result has been billions in profits for insurance companies and little, if anything, for the public, according to University of Nevada insurance law professor Jeff Stempel.
"We can see that policyholders individually are getting hurt by being dragged through the court on fender-bender claims, and yet we don't see any collateral benefit in the form of reduced premiums even for the other policyholders," Stempel said.
"So I think now we can say to continue this kind of program is in my view institutionalized bad faith."
If you have never heard of the strategy, it's because insurance companies don't want you to know that they are paying out less and less for minor crashes even while their profits soar and your premiums continue to rise.
But after a review of more than 6,000 company documents and court records, interviews with a dozen people nationwide, including former company insiders, and conversations with accident victims, the picture is clear: If you challenge the offer by some insurance companies you will be left with no option but to go to court, where you will be dragged through the wringer.
In an affidavit in a New Mexico case where Allstate is being sued, one of the company's former attorneys said the strategy is to make fighting the company "so expensive and so time-consuming that lawyers would start refusing to help clients."
.....The cases, CNN found, illustrate a carefully developed strategy to make the victims look like they are trying to defraud the insurers.
But documents CNN obtained indicate profit, not fraud, is the reason companies decided to play hardball in small accidents.
For Allstate and State Farm, according to documents obtained by CNN, the strategy was developed in the mid-1990s with the assistance of consulting giant McKinsey & Co.
Looking for a way to boost profits, McKinsey focused on soft-tissue injuries incurred in minor crashes.
While the McKinsey documents -- numbered in the thousands -- are under seal in courts around the country, CNN saw several of them during a court hearing in Lexington, Kentucky.
Playing off Allstate's signature slogan, one document recommends the insurer put boxing gloves on its "good hands" for those who insist on going to court.
The strategy, according to former Allstate and State Farm employee Jim Mathis, relies on the three D's -- denying a claim, delaying settlement of the claim and defending against the claim in court.
"The profits are good, and as long as the community, the public allows this to occur, the insurance companies will get richer and people ... will not get a fair and reasonable settlement," Mathis said.
So the insurance companies are making more money by offloading their obligations onto the public. Meanwhile, premiums keep rising. Insurance companies are no longer satisfied with the spread between the premiums and the risk, now they are refusing to pay the full cost of the risk. Whether we're talking about health, homeowners, or auto insurance the pattern is the same: constantly increasing premiums and even more denied claims. This is what today's "free market" looks like, institutional fraud on a massive scale.