Tuesday, February 12, 2008

At Fault?

February 12, 2008

State Farm Insurance
California Reconsideration of Fault Department
P.O. Box 22664
Bakersfield, CA 93390-2664

Re: Claim Number: [redacted]
Policy Number: [redacted]
Date of Accident: January 28, 2008

I respectfully request reconsideration of the claim department’s determination that I am principally responsible for this accident. Claim representative [redacted] stated that this determination was based on his personal belief that the accident would not have happened had I been driving safely; your letter echoes this by saying that it is “because of traveling at an unsafe distance.”

I grant that the stone that I struck was probably stationary at the moment of impact. But I did not cause the accident, nor could I have avoided it by traveling at a different distance.

Let me remind you of the circumstances of the accident. I was returning home from work by my usual route. Although it was after dark, driving conditions were good. At that point Alma Street has two lanes in each direction, plus a center turn lane. The speed limit is 35 mph. I was moving with traffic, neither passing nor being passed, neither crowding nor being crowded.

Without any warning, I spotted a light-colored object on the pavement behind the car in front of me. That car had neither braked nor swerved. I was unable to stop before striking the object and damaging the underside of my car. When I was able to pull over to the side of the road and back off it, I discovered that it was a large, flat-sided rock.

Big rock...
In our discussion, Mr. [redacted] advanced the ludicrous claim that every prudent driver will always maintain enough separation from the car in front to be able to stop before hitting a fixed object that emerges from under it. I.e., about 130 feet for 35 mph. This is advice that I have never encountered before. I do not know where Mr. [redacted] drives, but around Palo Alto, it is difficult for a cautious driver to maintain a separation of even one car-length per ten mph, because other traffic continually cuts in and fills the separating space.

Regardless of what Mr. [redacted] considers prudent, another five or ten car-lengths of separation would not have prevented this accident. The stone was already well clear of the car ahead when I first sighted it. The problem was its lack of visibility. Since the accident, whenever I pass that stone at night I try to judge how far it would have been visible, had I been expecting it. I do not think I could have seen it from more than 100 feet, given the similarity of its color to the light-colored pavement on that stretch, and the glare from oncoming traffic. The stone is still there by the curb; you can easily get an independent assessment of this if you wish.

I am firmly convinced that the person principally responsible for this accident is the one who caused the stone to be in the middle of the street in the first place. I don’t know who this was. I have hearsay evidence from a man who had been following the stone’s scrape marks up Alma, trying to find the car dragging it. He said that he was an apartment manager, and had seen a woman drive over boundary stones at his apartment complex, dragging one of them into the street under her car. The trail of scratches ended at the point of my accident. Perhaps she was driving the car in front of me, and the stone finally worked its way from under her car to be deposited in front of me. I don’t know. But I certainly wasn’t the one who put it there.

The unusual circumstances of this accident make it a poor predictor of my future accidents and claims. Suddenly spotting a 60-pound stone in the middle of their lane in traffic is something most drivers probably don’t experience in a lifetime.

If there is any further information that I can provide to assist you in this decision, please ask.


James Horning

PS The brick in the picture was added purely for visual scale. It was not on the road and played no role in the accident.

Updated 3/9/08 to add: State Farm replied on March 6, 2008. Note the specificity, understanding, and sympathy of their response to each of my points above. I wonder if I would have received this much care and attention if I had not been a customer continuously for the last 45 years?

Dear James Horning:

I received your letter asking for a reconsideration of our claim staff's decision about the party principally at fault in this accident. In response to your request, I reviewed the at fault determination letter, the supporting documentation, and the information you submitted.

My review indicates the information supports our claim staff's decision.

Please contact your original claim handler should you have any questions regarding their decision or the damages claimed in this accident. California regulations explain that a driver is "principally at fault" if he or she caused 51% or more of the accident.

Thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention.


Tasha Hunt-Caudill
Team Manager, Reconsideration of Fault Coordinator
State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company


By way of contrast, my repair shop manager tells me that the State Farm Claims Adjuster insisted on inspecting literally every nut and bolt listed on the repair estimate before approving it.

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