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Regulators Probing Whether 20th Century Rate Hikes Surpass 6% : Insurance: Company said it plans to petition for reversal of ruling that it must pay policyholders rebates under Prop. 103.


Faced with "a pattern of complaints" about auto insurance bills, the state Insurance Department has launched an investigation into whether 20th Century Insurance Co. is charging higher premiums than allowed under the 6% rate increase it was granted last month.

The department said it has received "more than 10" consumer complaints about increases exceeding 6%. A consumer group headed by Proposition 103 author Harvey Rosenfield contends that it has fielded three or four dozen complaints about premium increases of as much as 100%.

In a separate matter, the Insurance Department plans to send lawyers into Los Angeles Superior Court this morning to counter what it contends are delaying tactics by 20th Century to avoid execution of a key California Supreme Court ruling until a new insurance commissioner takes office in January.

Twentieth Century said it plans to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the California high court's Aug. 18 decision, under which the Woodland Hills-based insurer must pay policyholders $119 million in rebates and interest under Proposition 103, the 1988 insurance rate-cutting initiative.

The company said it wants to delay the payment pending its appeal.

Regarding the auto rate increases, the state's fifth-largest auto insurer said it is abiding by the Insurance Department's rate order. As with any rate hike, the 6% figure is a statewide average, so some motorists will receive higher increases and others will get lower ones or no increases at all, spokesman Richard Dinon said.

Deputy Insurance Commissioner William Ahern said Thursday that regulators are poring over policyholders' bills and documents contained in the 20th Century rate filing "to figure out what's going on and to see if it's legal."

Policyholder Barbara J. Constine of Los Angeles said her rates jumped 12%, to $418 from $372 a year ago. "Nothing's changed. It's the same car and same coverage," she said in an interview Thursday.

Dinon said the rate filing approved by the Insurance Department provided average increases of about 90% in uninsured motorist coverage and 10% in bodily injury liability, but about a 20% decrease in comprehensive and physical damage coverage. The net effect, he said, is that 20th Century will receive a 6% increase in total auto premiums over the previous year.

On the Proposition 103 challenge, Ahern said that Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs received the California Supreme Court's 7-0 decision affirming Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi's order that 20th Century pay the rebates. Janavs then asked Garamendi to submit a proposed order to implement the decision and gave 20th Century until Nov. 23 to respond.

"We feel this is dragging things out," Ahern said, adding that department lawyers would ask Janavs today to expedite the process.

Garamendi, in a separate telephone interview Thursday, said: "It's obvious why the industry is trying this improper and devious maneuver to delay the effect of the Supreme Court decision. They think they are going to elect their own boy, Chuck Quackenbush as commissioner."

Republican Quackenbush opposes state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) in the Nov. 8 election.

The company also announced late Thursday that James O. Curley, 52, has resigned as president and director, effective Oct. 31, "to pursue other interests."


Times staff writer Kenneth Reich contributed to this story.

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