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Doggone It! His Auto Insurance Premium Soars

October 07, 1987|Bob Baker | Bob Baker is a Times staff writer

J. George Hodek was beset by a mysterious correlation: His annual auto insurance premium went up because his dog ran away from home.

This is not as improbable as it sounds.

Hodek, a 60-year-old North Hollywood roofing contractor, had been making monthly payments of $191 for automobile insurance. His rates might have been lower, but he had three violations on his Department of Motor Vehicles record.

However, his new annual policy, which takes effect later this month, was going to be better. As Hodek's insurance agent explained it, one of those three violations was going to drop off his record--the DMV deletes each one after three years. That, Hodek was told, would allow his insurance company to put him in a lower-risk category.

But when the new policy notice came in the mail, the premium had gone up, not down, to $245 a month.

Hodek called his agent, who told him he still had three violations on his DMV record. There was something funny, though. One of the violations had an unfamiliar code number. Hodek knew he hadn't been nabbed on a violation on the date in question.

His agent suggested Hodek telephone the DMV.

Hodek did, but the clerk who answered the phone couldn't identify the mystery violation. Finally, a supervisor got on the phone and identified it as a violation of a municipal code rather than the state motor vehicle code.

Hodek called Van Nuys Municipal Court near his home. The clerk there couldn't help him either. He pleaded, stressing the money at stake. The clerk went away for a while, then came back and told him the violation had something to do with a dog pound.

The light bulb flashed on. The date of the mystery violation coincided with the time that Hodek was cited for violating Los Angeles' leash law after his cocker spaniel, Taffy, jumped a short fence, ran away from home and was picked up by animal control officers.

What the heck was going on here?

Hodek put in another call to the DMV. He couldn't get through. He called the West Valley Animal Shelter, where he'd retrieved his dog.

"The lady there told me it was a normal procedure for this to go on my DMV record," he said, bewildered. "If this is standard procedure, it's a disaster."

In fact, this was not standard procedure. It was something more frightening: human error.

Somebody in the Municipal Court system apparently sent a copy of Hodek's leash law citation to the DMV by mistake. The DMV, which receives thousands of reports of citations for vehicle-related violations each day, routinely punched the leash-law citation into its computer file of drivers.

"It does happen from time to time," a DMV spokeswoman in Sacramento said. "We can't tell what it is by looking at the number of the code that was violated because each city and county have their own codes."

When it came time to renew Hodek's policy, his insurance company, Mercury Insurance, obtained a copy of the DMV record and was stuck with the same problem.

It's easy to distinguish between sections of the state motor vehicle code, said a company spokesman, but it's impossible to see a violation of a municipal or county code on a driver's record and tell whether it was for illegally driving on public property or speeding or, in this case, violating the leash law.

So, following its own standard procedure, which in effect puts the burden of proof on the motorist in these kind of cases, Mercury simply counted the mystery citation as a violation. And instead of being reinstated, as he'd expected, to the 0-to-2 violation group, which pays "preferred" rates, Hodek stayed in the 3-to-4 violation group, which pays higher "standard" rates, according to his insurance agent, Karel Lehky.

How is a customer to know of any of this? He needs to have a sharp-eyed agent or to be pretty sharp himself.

"We advise agents that if they find that these (violations) are not motor vehicle violations, we need to be advised. If they give us a copy of the citation, we'll take it off the record," said Thomas Faska, vice president of Mercury's Brea office.

It's all being straightened out now for Hodek, but none of it sits well with him. He's upset over having to work so hard to clear up something so quirky.

Hodek was not the first person to be victimized this way, said agent Lehky.

"I'd say 2% to 3% of my clients find this kind of (non-driving-related) stuff on their DMV records," he said. "Things like loitering, disorderly conduct and public drunkenness."

In J. George Hodek's case, at least one safeguard has been put into effect.

His cocker spaniel isn't going to run away again.

"I made the fence higher," he said.

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