An article in the Insurance Journal, New Hampshire Body Shop Owner ‘Winging’ Own Case Beats State Farm in High Court, about an assignment of benefits (AOB) case caught my attention. State Farm’s lawyers lost to a non-lawyer in the New Hampshire Supreme Court.1 The dollar dispute was overwhelmed by the case’s practical implications. The article noted in part:
Hit-and-run owner Steve Piispanen didn’t hire an attorney because he considers them “not educated” in insurance law.
He represented himself in appealing a local judge’s decision to dismiss a $1,093.37 claim against State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. He wrote his own brief and appeared in person to hold oral arguments before the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Piispanen has no legal education. “Hell no,”; he said. “I just winged it.”
Piispanen filed a minor claim. State Farm argued that the policy issued to Meagher clearly states that any assignment of benefits is void unless State Farm approves the assignment. Circuit Court Judge James Gleason denied the claim without explaining why.
It didn’t end the fight. Piispanen is the third generation owner of a car workshop that was founded in 1928 by a Finnish immigrant. He said he regularly confers with other “like-minded” auto repair shop owners and knew that courts in other states have not looked favorably on insurance contracts barring post-loss assignment of benefits claims.
He said State Farm had refused to pay for parts that clearly needed to be replaced. For example, the insurer insisted that he install a halogen headlight instead of the LED headlight provided by the original equipment manufacturer, which cost $300 more. The insurer also refused to pay for calibration of the vehicle’s security system.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court looked to State Farm’s policy language to make its decision:
We simply declare that, given the language of the anti-assignment clause, there is nothing in the policy that prevents the insured from assigning his right – arising after the loss – to a settlement of the dispute with State Farm at a fair and reasonable price. Any defense available to State Farm in an action brought by the insured—such as that the claim is unenforceable because of New Hampshire Administrative Rule, Ins 1002.17—would be available to State Farm in an action brought by Keene Auto Body .
The obvious question is “why don’t insurance companies change the policy language to unequivocally prevent the award of post-loss benefits?” I expect they will. This victory may be short-lived. I also expect that this trend will occur throughout the United States and that insurers will continue to fight the allocation of insurance proceeds with different policy language.
Stay focused and stay determined. Don’t make someone else your determination – be self-determined. It will take you very far.
– Justice Smith
1 Keene Auto Body v. State Farm Mut. Car. ins. Co.no. 2021-0156 (NH 15 November 2022).