Sudbury

Class action lawsuit alleges insurance companies breaking the law and the province doing nothing to stop them

Northerners still recovering from car accidents say their insurance companies are not giving them the help they paid for. Several have joined a class action suit that claims the companies are breaking the law and the province is doing nothing to stop them.

About half of the people signed on to the class action are from northern Ontario

53-year-old Bill Elliott has been off work for two years since the taxi he was driving in downtown North Bay was hit by someone running a red light. (Erik White/CBC)

Right after it happened, Bill Elliott says it felt like someone "whacked me across the neck with a baseball bat."

But the pain hasn't gone away in the two years since the taxi cab he was driving was hit by a car running a red light at a North Bay intersection in 2016.

The 53-year-old hasn't worked or driven since then, because of pain in his head that "feels like ice picks going through" and short-term memory loss.

"Imagine you had Alzheimer's all of a sudden, then you had a lucid moment, then Alzheimer's, then a lucid moment," says Elliott.

He has gone through $30,000 of the $50,000 in treatment he's entitled to under his insurance plan, but he has learned that the company may not be providing everything he's paid for.

Elliott has joined a class action lawsuit alleging that the six major insurance companies have counted sales tax on certain services toward the total amount a customer is allowed to claim.

The suit alleges that means that people lose out on treatment, while the companies add millions of dollars to their profits. 

"Foolishly, I believed that the insurance company was fulfilling their obligations that were guaranteed under the law, but of course they weren't. They'll do everything they can to pinch a penny out of you, but they don't want to pay when you need it," says Elliott, who has been told he will have to deal with his injuries for the rest of his life. 

"We're forced to pay whether we want to or not, but we're not getting what we paid for."

North Bay plumber Mark Cicciarelli, 47, has had to pay for acupuncture and physiotherapy out of his own pocket after the insurance company stopped covering his treatment.

For many of the dozen or so claimants, this means they pay for more of their treatments out of their own pockets.

"Visa and you find a way to pay for it. Visa, visa, visa and make those payments," says 47-year-old Mark Cicciarelli of North Bay.

He still has neck pain two years after his van was rear-ended and since the insurance money ran out, has been paying for massage therapy and acupuncture himself so he can keep working for the family plumbing business.

Cicciarelli says he "wasn't happy" when his lawyer told him about the insurance company not covering the harmonized sales tax.  

"I would have gotten a good week's worth of work with that kind of relief," he says.

26-year-old Shelli Black of Callander still has neck pain three years after being injured in a car accident and is now part of a class action lawsuit against her insurance company. (Erik White/CBC)

It's been three years since Shelli Black's car was hit by a taxi at a North Bay intersection.

The 26-year-old from Callander hasn't been able to work as a personal support worker since then because of recurring headaches.

She says it's hard "being so young" and "having to depend on others" to provide for her growing family.

"It just adds another stress on top of trying to cope, trying to heal," says the mother of two, who is expecting a third child.

"Like I'm not better and I'm not receiving treatment, it's frustrating to have to fight for that."

Jay Ralston is one of the lawyers fighting a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit against six major insurance companies. (Erik White/CBC)

Jay Ralston is one of the lawyers leading the class action against six insurance companies and the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, which regulates the industry.

He says the individual dollar amounts his clients are owed is often small, but they add up to millions of dollars for the insurance companies. 

"It's just corporate greed at the expense of individuals who just aren't in a position to fight for themselves," Ralston says.

The insurance companies named in the suit are Aviva, Intact, Belair, Allstate, Unifund and Certas. Those that responded to CBC's request for comment, say they can't because the matter is before the courts.

"Unifund is committed to treating our customers fairly and our top priority remains ensuring that injured motorists return to good health," reads one statement.

"We can confirm that we are paying the HST and are not counting it towards the cap, as per current [provincial] guidelines," says the statement from Belairdirect and Intact.

"As this is before the courts, we cannot provide further details at this time."

Car insurance companies are declining to comment on the class action lawsuit because the matter is before the courts. But two of the six named in the suit say they are following the provincial guidelines. (Robert Crum/Shutterstock)

The Desjardins Group that owns Certas insurance says it is in the process of reviewing the statement of claim and will be responding to it in due course."

The Financial Services Commission of Ontario is also named in the suit, which alleges the provincial agency knows the companies have been breaking the law and has not levied fines, revoked licenses or done anything else to intervene.

"They have the ability to stop it if they want to stop it, instead of just turning a blind eye," says Ralston.

The commission also declined an interview, but released a statement that says it "is aware of the recent statements of claim" but says it can't comment further because it is before the courts.  

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca