A Virtual Sampler of American Small Town Life
Who Gets Hurt When Americans
IT WAS A NICE evening in August. George Shumway was headed up the Reese Hill Rd. with his young son sitting beside him on the front seat of the car.
They were nearing the Frost Rd. when a pickup headed the other way suddenly crossed the centerline into George's lane. The truck, driven by Rudolf Kuhn of Surrey, swerved back at the last instant, but it was too late.
The jack mounted on the side of Kuhn's camper raked the side of Shumway's car, shearing metal and shattering glass the entire length of the car. Worse yet, it flayed George Shumway's arm, which he had out in the refreshingly cool evening wind.
George Shumway didn't notice he was injured until someone asked if he wanted to go to the emergency room. Then the pain began. It took hours to pick all the metal and glass out his arm and sew it up with more than 50 stitches.
Meanwhile, Rudolf Kuhn fled the scene of the accident. Neither Shumway nor the Sumas Police, who drove the Reese Hill Rd. in response to the emergency call, saw any sign of Kuhn's large Ford rig.
When they did find him, the police determined he was intoxicated, and cited him for driving under the influence of alcohol.
However, Kuhn's Canadian insurance company now claims the accident was Shumway's fault. As a result, it has refused to pay the damages on either Shumway's 1979 Pontiac Firebird (estimated at $6,000), or his extensive medical bills for repair and rehabilitation of his injured arm.
George could only get three days off from his job as a milker, and so he had to hire other people to come in and do his job for him. He and his wife Fran, who live on the Rock Rd., have been without a second car since the accident, making it hard for him to get to physical therapy. Doctors have advised him to give the arm a rest, but he can't afford to because Kuhn's insurer is refusing to pay damages.
Shumway had insurance himself with Allstate ("You're in Good Hands") in Bellingham. If Kuhn had been uninsured, Shumway's insurance would have paid, but because Kuhn did have coverage, Allstate has also refused to pay.
Like almost all drivers in British Columbia, Rudolf Kuhn is insured by the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), a provincial governmental entity. Normally, industry observers say, insurance companies try to resolve property damage immediately after an accident. In several Whatcom County cases, however, ICBC has tied property and medical claims together, delaying payout on property damage.
ACCORDING TO BELLINGHAM attorney John Aaby, who has represented a number of Whatcom County residents including Shumway in cross-border insurance suits, ICBC apparently makes a practice of withholding payment on even the most flagrant cases that occur in the U.S.
"This is a great policy for attorneys, of course," Aaby said, "because it forces people to hire an attorney and sue to get what should be their by rights." Aaby filed suit for Shumway against ICBC on October 28, attempting to force ICBC to deal with his claim.
ICBC spokesman Ken Hardy in Vancouver said that Kulin now claims Shumway hit him. Hardy said Kuhn contends that he tried find Shumway after the accident, but failed. Then Kuhn stopped and had a beer, according to Hardy, who said that's where the alcohol on Kuhn's breath came from.
Hardy denied that ICBC has a policy of penalizing Americans, but acknowledged that it takes longer to pay out on cases involving Americans.
Aaby said Shumway had gone out of his way to be helpful, and called ICBC's claim that Shumway was to blame for the accident "preposterous," adding that it is in ICBC's interest to settle. "We don't have punitive damages in this state, but if you can inflame a jury with DWI and hit-and-run, it's the next best thing."
Whatever happens in this particular case, George Shumway's experience raises some troubling questions for Americans about ICBC, which is the single largest insurer of cars on the road in border areas like Sumas.
Do ICBC policies make American drivers "second class citizens" in their own country? Is ICBC attempting the deal with its well-publicized money woes by squeezing drivers on the Washington side of the line?
Ken Hardy says no, but George Shumway might answer differently.
-- Bruce Brown