Desktop appraisal unfair, says crash victim

Steve Geenen of Stellenryk, Durbanville, thinks desktop assessments in the motor trade should be regarded as an unethical business practice after a car crash left him R51 932.60 out of pocket.

Now he is planning to take an insurance giant to court.

Mr Geenen, 73, was driving to Cape Town when another car speeding through a red traffic light crashed into his Freelander II, causing damage to the left front fender/wheel. The left rear wheel also hit the kerb.

The vehicle was towed to Island Auto, a Santam approved repair centre in Paarden Eiland.

It took three days to register the claim with his broker, and they handed his case to GA Assessing who was appointed to assess the vehicle the next day.

“I wasn’t notified of the inspector’s arrival but soon I received a report from assessor Graeme Abbott saying the vehicle was a write-off,” said Mr Geenen who has been a Santam client for 30 years.

Mr Geenen claimed the assessor’s report was full of errors and the cost of repairs inflated “by 65%”.

“I realised the assessor had done a desktop assessment of the Freelander and he hadn’t seen the vehicle, which was confirmed by Island Auto staff,” said Mr Geenen.

“The Freelander was taken to Topline in Stikland, and with Gateway Offroad they gave me a quote 65% lower than the ‘armchair artist’. Technically, the vehicle was still a write-off, but Santam, was not prepared to review their decision. I sent a final claim of R130 789.40 to the administrator and later to Santam who both rejected it as the Freelander was still a write-off. I complained to the Ombudsman for Short-Term Insurance (OSTI) with the same result. The vehicle had been repaired so it could not be registered as a total loss. I signed the Agreement of Loss (AOL) and received R78 856.80 but I am still R51 932.60 out of pocket, suffering a loss of R52 000 and many sleepless nights because an assessor did not do his job. It appears ‘armchair’ assessments are common,” Mr Geenen said.

Santam agreed with the ombud’s findings.

Peter Nkhuna, senior assistant ombudsman at the Osti, said desktop assessments are common and they are never final, and after the vehicle is stripped, the assessor will be notified of any additional damage and the quote adjusted.

“Property valuers use similar tools and are geared at efficiency and cost management.

“Quotes for parts are driven by discounts which insurers are able to secure due to the large volumes they buy. The first question a panelbeater asks is if they are quoting for an insurance claim or for the owner’s account. Different quotation systems seem to be widely used by panelbeaters.

“It is likely that insurers also negotiated hourly rates for labour and other costs like spray-painting. Volumes versus profit margins are a fairly widely used business practice. Our approach is that if the insured contests the assessment, he must obtain and submit an alternative assessment. Our legal system says ‘he who alleges must prove’ so if Mr Geenen believes the quote was inflated he has to prove it.

“The question of whether or not a vehicle is a write-off is one of fact. Should it remain in dispute, the parties will be advised to take their case to court,” Mr Nkhuna said.

When a vehicle is written off the main consideration is if it is economical to repair.

Other factors include safety issues and where there is a risk of insurers being saddled with ongoing repairs, they prefer to write the vehicle off.

“Where the insured insists on repairing it when the insurer has declared the vehicle a write- off, it can’t be at the insurer’s expense.

“This is mainly because the insurer reserves the option to repair, replace or re-instate at its discretion, according to most policy wordings. Contractually, the insurer calls the shots,” Mr Nkhuna said.

Mr Abbott said: “Topline re-ran a quote and left some items off and still could not get the damaged amount below the write off figure of R78 850. They also found some second-hand parts from a supplier in Wellington.”

Mr Geenen claimed that Santam used Topline’s quote to prove the write-off was correct.

“The final repair bill was higher than my estimate because I was unaware that VAT had been excluded; after the vehicle was repaired we found that the rear differential had been damaged and I added a few more costs that I incurred during the accident.

“Mr Abbot also missed the damage to a rim and tyre, the intercooler and the radiator, which were clearly visible,” said Mr Geenen.

“Santam and Osti did not address my complaint which is about my vehicle being written off on the strength of a faked, invalid, highly inflated assessed quotation. I could not make an informed decision on the strength of this fake document.”

Now Mr Geenen will get his chance to prove it – in court.