Did State Farm Buy a Judge? Racketeering Lawsuit Heading to Trial After Federal Court Refuses to Dismiss Case

By Josh Cable, SENIOR EDITOR  |   Body Shop Business

A federal judge has denied State Farm’s motion to toss a class-action lawsuit claiming that the insurance carrier secretly bankrolled the 2004 election campaign of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier in hopes that he would overturn the $1.05 billion Avery vs. State Farm judgment.

Nine months after Karmeier was elected, he cast the deciding vote to void the $1.05 billion judgment against State Farm for allegedly breaching its contract with policyholders when it required the use of aftermarket parts in the repair of vehicles.

In 2012, Mark Hale, Todd Shadle and Carly Vickers Morse filed a racketeering lawsuit in federal court asserting that State Farm recruited Karmeier to run for an open seat on the Illinois Supreme Court and covertly funneled millions of dollars into his campaign. At the time of the election, the Illinois Supreme Court was considering the insurance carrier’s appeal of Avery vs. State Farm.

Karmeier, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, now is the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.

Hale and the other plaintiffs argue that State Farm orchestrated Karmeier’s election campaign behind the scenes and tried to conceal the extent of its involvement. In their lawsuit, they claim that an investigation led by a retired FBI special agent revealed State Farm’s “elaborate plan to obtain reversal of the judgment.”

Even though there was no guarantee that the Illinois Supreme Court would rule on State Farm’s appeal after the November 2004 election, the insurance carrier believed that investing as much as $4 million in Karmeier’s campaign to potentially avoid paying $1.05 billion to its policyholders was “a worthwhile gamble,” according to the lawsuit.

After Hale filed the 2012 lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, Bloomington, Ill.-based State Farm asked the court to dismiss the case. The insurance carrier argued, among other things, that Hale’s lawsuit is an attempt “to seek redress for the Illinois Supreme Court’s reversal of the $1.05 billion judgment in Avery.”

On Feb. 6, Judge David Herndon of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois denied State Farm’s motion to toss Hale’s lawsuit.

“It is clear that plaintiffs are not asking this court to overturn or review the Illinois Supreme Court’s Avery judgment,” Herndon wrote in his 17-page ruling. “ … In essence, plaintiffs are asserting claims for an independent legal wrong which is the illegal acts or omissions of defendants. These claims are based on [State Farm’s] conduct – including misrepresentations to and concealment from plaintiffs and the court – not the state court decisions.”

In response to Herndon’s decision, State Farm spokeswoman Missy Dundov said: “We respectfully disagree with the ruling and will continue to vigorously defend ourself in court.”

‘Trial of the Century’

Erica Eversman, chief counsel at Akron, Ohio-based Vehicle Information Services, has been following Hale vs. State Farm from the beginning. For collision repairers, Eversman asserted, the case could be “the trial of the century.”

“This has the potential to be a turning-point decision,” Eversman told BodyShop Business. “If State Farm is held accountable – and if the plaintiffs win, there’s no question this will be appealed – one would like to think that it would dissuade that type of behavior in the future, that [State Farm] wouldn’t run around [allegedly] financing and organizing people’s campaigns.”

In 2016, the Chicago Tribune reported that State Farm could owe more than $7.6 billion to policyholders if the Hale lawsuit is successful, citing Clifford Law Offices, which is representing policyholders.

Eversman said that figure certainly is “within the realm of possibility,” which makes the allegations against State Farm – if proven true – “mind-boggling.”

“State Farm is a mutual insurance company. It is owned by its policyholders,” Eversman said. “It’s a nonprofit insurance company. It’s not supposed to make money. … It makes you wonder why they would have spent $4 million to overturn a verdict that said they were taking advantage of their own company shareholders, and now they’re facing the potential of a $7 billion verdict. It makes you sit back and question why we, as a society, allow insurance companies to function in this type of manner.”

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