Progressive Insurance Investigators Sued for Spying on Church Support Group
By Gerri Elder
Most insurance companies will do whatever they can to solidify their case. Because their job is to maximize their profits by minimizing their payouts, they will do whatever they can legally to dispute your claim. An injury lawyer may be able to help in some cases.
At Total Injury, we have reported stories about rough insurance company tactics in the past. But this time, many people think that investigators for Progressive Insurance crossed the line.
In 2004, Bill and Leandra Pitts, from Henry County, Georgia, were involved in an auto accident that caused personal injuries. They sued the motorist who struck their car, as well as her insurance company, Allstate. The other motorist, however, only had $50,000 in coverage, and so the couple's lawyer sought compensation from their insurance company, Progressive, as well.
When investigating the lawsuit and claim, Progressive hired Merlin Investigations to follow through on examining the couples' claim for legitimacy. And this is when the story takes a decidedly shocking turn. The two investigators assigned to the case, James Purgason, Jr. and Paige Weeks, posed as a married couple at Southside Christian Fellowship Church, where the Pitts were members, in order to secretly gather information about them.
After attending services and expressing interest to join the church, the "couple" was invited to attend private group support sessions at the home of a church member. Ken King, who had been holding the meetings for 20 years, ran the sessions as a way for members to engage in confession of personal issues as well as group support for recovery from problems. Subjects during these private discussions often touched on substance addiction and abuse, sexual orientation issues, and disclosure of personal secrets such as abortion.
The investigators saw this atmosphere as the ideal place to gather potentially compromising information against the Pitts, perhaps an admission about the accident or claim that they could use to discredit the couple. To gather evidence, Purgason and Weeks secretly tape-recorded the sessions.
This came as a shock when it was revealed to King, who had to break the news to his loyal attendees. King used to begin the meetings with a standard statement of trust, that nothing said within the walls of the room would ever leave it. Understandably, many members who had confessed secrets in that environment were devastated. Some members of the group left for good, unable to recover their trust of King or fellow members; those who stayed, King relates, have had a difficult time rebuilding the trust they once had.
The lawyer for the Pitts, Atlanta attorney Wayne Grant, has called the investigation and tape-recording an "invasion of privacy to the worst degree." The Pitts' suit seeks unspecified damages for invasion of privacy, breach of confidentiality, emotional distress and fraud.
However, what may seem to be a clear-cut violation of personal privacy may not legally have the same traction. Georgia law allows recording of conversations, as long as one party is aware of it, a scenario under which the tape-recorded group sessions fall. Many private investigators gather information under false pretenses, including gathering audio and video information on subjects without their prior knowledge, and so the work of the two investigators may not be seen by a court of law as outside the bounds of acceptable practice. The two investigators claim that they operated within the limits of the law at all times, and it may be that a jury will have to agree that they did.
Currently, the Georgia state insurance commissioner has been proceeding with his own investigation of the incident, and has ordered Progressive to preserve any relevant documents that might help its investigation. Commissioner John W. Oxendine stated at the beginning of the state agency inquiry that his job was to examine any potential wrongdoing in order to "protect the consumer."
Also, in response to the revelation of the investigation tactics, the president of Progressive Insurance issued a press release, stating that "the actions of the investigators and Progressive people involved in this situation were incompatible with our Values and inappropriate." He further pledged to attempt to regain the public's trust in his company.
However, despite the state investigation and the public apology, it may be that the Pitts have no legal recourse when it comes to recovering for their privacy invasion. The line that many believe the investigators crossed may in fact be moral or ethical rather than legal.