KENNESAW, Ga. (FOX 5 Atlanta) - UPDATE (April 19, 2019): Insurance Commissioner found NO evidence of fraud on the part of Sugar Hill Collision or David Montanaro. Classic Collision filed the complaint after both publicly criticized the quality of the body shop chain's work.
(Original story is below)
A fraud complaint filed with Georgia's Insurance Commissioner reveals a bitter dispute between a chain of body shops and an independent appraiser critical of some of their repair work.
At the heart of all this: people afraid to take their newly-repaired cars back on the road. People like Pam Skinner.
"I was just like pretty upset," she admitted.
In October 2018, Skinner's Nissan Pathfinder was rear-ended. It was clearly the other guy's fault; their insurance company paid for the repairs. Pam took her car to Classic Collision of Kennesaw.
Classic Collision runs a string of body shops in Georgia and Alabama. They came up with an estimate of $7,773.19 for Pam's SUV. Two months later, they said it was ready. To Pam, it looked as good as new.
But Pam knew the insurance company also owed her some additional money -- called Diminished Value -- because accidents affect the overall value of the vehicle even after it's been repaired. She didn't know how much to ask for, so she contacted an expert recommended by a friend.
David Montanaro runs Southern Automotive Consultants. A former body shop owner himself, he's quickly become a thorn in the side of repair shops and insurance companies by publicly criticizing the quality of the work.
"A structurally-misaligned car doesn't drive right," he explained. "It's dangerous."
In Pam's case, Montanaro took apart the Pathfinder to check Classic Collision's repair. He criticized the body shop for not replacing the back lift gate and quarter panel originally damaged, instead the shop spending 18 hours repairing the damaged metal.
Montanaro told Pam her car should have been totaled by her insurance company and might not protect her in a future accident. She says she's too scared to drive her car.
"I thought insurance companies, when somebody hits you, they're supposed to make you whole," she said. "And I have not been made whole."
"It saves a tremendous amount of money to fix these parts versus replace them," Montanaro explained.
Montanaro filed his own complaint against Classic Collision, a collusion complaint with the US Attorney General, claiming some body shops cut corners on repairs in hopes of getting a steady stream of future business from the insurance company. The Justice Department would not comment.
Hoping to prove his point, Montanaro secretly recorded his phone call with the manager of Classic Collision in Kennesaw. They were talking about that original estimate for Pam Skinner's car, the one Montanaro insisted should have gotten a new quarter panel and lift gate. The manager -- who once worked for Montanaro -- says his bosses turned down his request for those parts.
"I got all the bigwigs involved," Ian Morris says on the recording. "I said it needs a quarter (panel) needs a (lift) gate. They said Ian, it doesn't matter what you want."
No one from Classic Collision would talk to us on camera or make Ian Morris available for an interview. In a series of written statements, a Classic Collision spokesman said the repairs in Pam's case were "within industry standards and the least invasive." Classic Collision has since offered to replace the parts, even suggesting paying a different body shop to do the actual work. Pam Skinner said no. The company claims they've been targeted for "a shakedown."
Classic Collision filed a complaint to the Georgia Insurance Commissioner that Montanaro was "operating as an adjuster without a license" and illegally negotiating settlements with insurance companies." Their attorney says the independent appraiser is needlessly frightening their customers.
Montanaro fired off a reply, denying the accusations and telling the Insurance Commissioner that he had actually found five cars repaired by various Classic Collision locations that had an "inferior and unsafe 'repair' and then delivered back to their unsuspecting customers." The company denies any unsafe repairs.
The Insurance Commissioner cleared Montanaro of any wrongdoing with his business. Since then, Classic Collision has filed a fraud complaint. The Insurance Commissioner won't comment on that.
Montanaro told the Insurance Commissioner his critical reports convinced Classic Collision or the insurance company to later buy back cars from the customer.
One of those belonged to Larry Friedman.
An insurance company paid Classic Collision in Alpharetta $3546.27 to repair Friedman's 2014 Mercedes C300. Friedman was also rear-ended, the other driver's insurance company also responsible for making the repairs.
Montanaro uses Sugar Hill Collision owner Kevin Moreland to help with his post-repair inspections. Moreland has been in the body repair business for 15 years. The two say they charge an average of $2500, the bill they say typically paid by the insurance company after being made aware of poor repair work.
Moreland thinks Friedman's Mercedes should have been totaled.
"No one can change the facts," he said. "And the facts are there is visible distortion to the unibody structure of that Mercedes."
"They put a new bumper on and put me back on the road and my family in an unsafe vehicle," complained Friedman.
Should Friedman really have been scared to drive his repaired car?
After we began asking questions, Classic Collision hired three consultants to examine that Mercedes, which the insurance company had kept in storage.
Two did find mistakes in the body shop's work, but not enough to justify totaling the car. One estimated an additional $750 of work needed to do the job right. The other: $2000.
"They're basically saying the repairs were done properly," we pointed out to Montanaro.
"They have an axe to grind with me," he replied.
"Couldn't you also say that you have a bias when you do your studies?"
"No," he replied. "Because I've looked at vehicles where we've put them back together and said there's nothing wrong with it. Get it out of here."
Meanwhile, justified or not, the list of people scared to drive their repaired cars is getting longer.