GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — Channel 2 Consumer Investigator Jim Strickland found unrepaired damage and unanswered questions about a major insurance company and its favored body shop.
Candice Prescott's wreck was bad enough, but after seeing the repair work on her Kia Sorento, she told Strickland: "I'm not getting back in that car. I'm not getting back in that car."
"This is a sure-fire fail in another impact," collision repair veteran Chris Allen said showing Prescott how a body shop had spliced replacement parts into sections of frame that were still damaged.
A dented front wheel got moved to the rear with a weight to fool the balance machine.
"It's not round anymore. It's damaged," said Allen. He estimated that a new wheel would have cost Prescott's insurance company $400.
A severely damaged wiring harness remained severely damaged. Strickland saw that some wires were frayed, and others, which had been spliced, had come apart.
"You're going to give it back to me stitched together? Mm-mm, it's not right at all," fumed Prescott.
The insurance company used by Prescotts is GEICO.
"This is not 'oops.' This is on purpose. And they just hope that we don't find out. And we did," crash victim Sarah Davison said.
After a rear-end wreck, she and her husband, Jeff, had a startling independent inspection on their repair.
"Everywhere there's a red X, there's a weld missing. No welds," Allen explained to Strickland as he showed more than a dozen spots that required welds that were not performed as part of the repair of the Davisons' 2010 Honda Fit.
"And many of the welds that are here are so weak, they pop with a pry bar," Allen said. He noted that the undone welds weaken the structure and make collapse in a second wreck more likely.
"It means a poor repair, a safety hazard. The occupants of the car are in danger," he said.
"It's staggering that another human being can let someone drive off in a car like that," Davison said.
The Davisons and Prescott said their insurance company swayed them toward a certain body shop chain.
"I said, 'Do you have a body shop that you trust in?' Automatic: ABRA," she said of her conversation with her insurance company.
"'It would be a much shorter experience and a much more pleasant experience through ABRA,'" Jeff Davison said of his insurance company's advice.
ABRA in Stone Mountain fixed the Honda. The Fayetteville location repaired the Prescotts’ Kia.
Each car was covered by GEICO, part of the insurance empire of billionaire Warren Buffett. The relationship between ABRA and GEICO is cozy enough to have reserved spaces in the ABRA parking lot for GEICO clients.
GEICO's slogan, "15 minutes can save you 15 percent or more on car insurance," comes with a price according to repair investigator Bill Byrne.
"The consumer doesn't realize that the discount is actually coming off the repair of their car," he said.
Byrne said GEICO and other large insurers use preferred shops, not for quality work but for cost-cutting shortcuts.
Veteran technician Russell Touchstone, who worked at ABRA for three years told Strickland that repair speed always trumped repair quality, to benefit the insurance company paying the bill.
"They're cutting labor hours and wanting everyone to do it cheap and faster," Touchstone said.
“They deceive the consumer. To me, it's nothing more than consumer fraud," added Byrne.
GEICO's own adjusters reviewed the repairs and declared each vehicle a total loss.
GEICO asked Strickland for details on his story, then did not respond to repeated requests for comment after those details were provided.
ABRA saw Strickland’s evidence and refused to speak about the cars involved.
The company's statement reads in its entirety:
"ABRA has a deep commitment to our customers and the communities where we do business. We pride ourselves on ensuring customer satisfaction and providing the highest level of service and product quality at each step of the repair process. ABRA is a trusted and qualified collision repair shop of GEICO’s repair program.
As part of this agreement, GEICO lists ABRA, as well as other qualified collision repair shops, on its repair program list to provide repairs for its policy holders. Customers benefit from the convenience, warranties on repair work, and the freedom from estimates and substantial paperwork through other repair programs. We cannot comment on any specific customer or any specific invoice at this time, nor will we speculate until more facts and details are gathered."
"If GEICO and ABRA are sitting here, I would tell them that what they are doing is morally repugnant," Sarah Davison said.