Ray Gunder wants to repair cars the right way, and he's willing to go to court to defend his right to do so.
For the last three years, the Lakeland, FL-based shop owner has been involved in a number of suits against State Farm over what he calls "aggressive steering" against his business, Gunder's Auto Center. According to Gunder, the shop (a family-owned and operated business for over 43 years) participated in State Farm's Service First Program until the insurer terminated his shop as a result of his communication with area facilities regarding State Farm's failure to pay for reasonable and necessary repair procedures and pricing. Thereafter, the carrier made efforts to take work out of the shop. Gunder says that State Farm has a history of actively discouraging vehicle owners (including some of the shop's longtime customers) from utilizing his business for repairs.
"We have letters [from State Farm] that were sent out to customers that said we charged a higher rate than any other shop in town," he explains. "They used the term 'overcharging,' which to me means 'stealing.' I had no idea what was coming; I was stunned when they started getting aggressive with their false, slanderous word tracks. In my community in Lakeland, it wouldn't take long for the word to get out and for people to say, 'Well, if we take our car to Gunder's, we're going to have to come up with $500, $1,000 or $1,500. Although he's got a great reputation, I don't have that kind of money.'"
Gunder also alleges that State Farm's steering included disparaging verbal remarks to customers about the shop's equipment being substandard and their abilities to repair vehicles in a timely manner. Concerned over the effect such practices were having on his reputation and bottom line, he filed a slander and tortuous interference lawsuit against the insurer in October 2008.
In April 2010, US District Court Judge Steven Merriday dismissed Gunder's suit.
"We proved that State Farm said and did all the things that we said they did – which is a long list – but [the Court] still ruled that [their remarks] did not reach a degree of 'express malice,'" Gunder offers. "'Express malice' would be, as suggested by the Federal Judge in his summary judgment narrative, comparable to calling myself and my family murderers and rapists."
After receiving a similar response months later from the Federal Court of Appeals in Atlanta, GA, Gunder decided to appeal the case to the US Supreme Court. In late October, he received word that the Court had declined to hear his case.
Gunder is currently involved in three other suits with State Farm. In each case, he is stepping into his customers' shoes and pursuing reimbursement for underpaid P-Page repair and paint and materials (P&M) procedures in the amounts of $1,461.01, $124.48 and $163.31, respectively. (Approximately 30 additional lawsuits are being prepared for similar situations, with Power of Attorneys [POAs] signed from Gunder's customers.)
According to Gunder, State Farm agreed to pay "compensatory damages and reasonable attorney fees" in late September. On October 6, the repairer and his legal counsel entered into settlement talks with State Farm. Although he claims that the amounts being offered would be "considered by most to be large," Gunder ultimately decided to walk.
I'd rather take a tenth of what they put on the table and get rewarded through a jury of my peers than be gagged and not share all the bad things they've done to my industry and me," he says.
Gunder says that part of his refusal to settle stems from State Farm's unwillingness to produce documentation requested by his legal counsel.
"[During the case], we continued to pound the rock up until the judge ruled that State Farm had to give me all of their surveys since 2007, all their activity files and every other document involved in this litigation concerning 'prevailing pricing,'" Gunder recalls. "I guess they decided to give up the fight and lose these three cases to keep me from getting my hands on numerous 'altered' fraudulent surveys that, according to 'consumer contracts,' set prevailing competitive pricing."
Additionally, Gunder has demanded payment for attorney fees in the last three cases conceded to by State Farm in the amount of $104,000.
In early December, Gunder announced that he had filed new cases against State Farm and Farmers. In the State Farm case, he is standing in the shoes of a customer who alleges that the insurer "knowingly underestimated the amount necessary, reasonable and 'competitive in the market area'" to bring a damaged 2007 Nissan Maxima back to pre-loss condition.
Additionally, Gunder names State Farm personnel in his litigation.
"In our opinion, State Farm Estimatics Team Manager Bob Davis has a personal vendetta against Gunder's," Gunder says. According to the owner, it has become "blatantly apparent" that Davis "is telling State Farm appraisers to not pay us for anything that we ask for on our supplement requests."
The case against Farmers alleges insurer misconduct in the repair of a 2010 Honda Civic, while Gunder has two pending cases against Farmers for non-payment of invoiced paint materials. Three years into his various legal battles, Gunder remains a firm believer that he is doing the right thing.
"If we drop sweat for all this work we perform, the techs simply want to get paid for it so they can feed their families," he says. "I refuse to use my techs as slave labor and say, 'I still want you to do the work, but you can't get paid for it.' That's never going to happen in my shop again.
"I identify the customer as my boss," he adds. "I only serve one master in my business, and I refuse to be 'forced' to give concessions to the insurance industry for fear of steering and slander. While we work with all insurers, once a customer's vehicle is placed in our trust, we work for the customer."
Gunder admits that there's not an hour that goes by that he doesn't think about this growing mountain of litigation.
"I want to leave this industry better than I found it," he says. "I'm not sure I could have continued this arduous journey if it were not for the support of my family, friends and employees. I've received excellent counsel from our corporate attorney, Brent Geohagan, and consultant Barrett Smith of Auto Damage Experts, who continues to assist me in improving the company's overall operation and profitability, along with offering his friendship and ongoing encouragement."
--Editor's Note: Article by Charles Bryant, re-published with permission from NJ Automotive