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L.A. billboard attacking Mercury Insurance is removed

Consumer Watchdog paid for the sign to be up in the Mid-Wilshire area, but it was taken down early after the insurance firm complained.

September 04, 2009|Nathan Olivarez-Giles

It was big. It was bright. It was controversial. And now it's gone.

On Thursday, CBS Outdoor Inc. took down a billboard graphic -- black text on a screaming yellow background -- reading: "Consumer Watchdog says: 'You Can't Trust Mercury Insurance.' "

The towering Mid-Wilshire billboard was in a prime spot for attracting attention, at least from Mercury Insurance's parent company, Mercury General Corp. It sat about half a mile east of corporate headquarters.

Consumer Watchdog's billboard was taken down because Mercury, California's third-largest auto insurer and ninth-largest homeowners insurer, complained to CBS Outdoor, said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog.

"Clearly, CBS Outdoor is not worried about breaching our contract with them," said Rosenfield, whose Santa Monica group has a long history of run-ins with Mercury and other insurers.

"CBS Outdoor signed off on the billboard before it went up," he said. "They have a review process, and they approved it, and it'd been up for almost two weeks with no problem. Now, today, it's a problem."

Mercury confirmed that its lawyers "recently contacted CBS Outdoor about defamatory statements that had been posted on one of their billboards."

"CBS apparently has considered our comments and, as a responsible organization, has removed the defamatory statements from their billboard. Consumer Watchdog's claims about Mercury Insurance and its motivation are without merit," Mercury said in a statement.

Mercury spokesman Coby King declined to comment further.

Randy Jackson, CBS Outdoor's Los Angeles general manager, said the company had nothing to say about the removal of the billboard.

The removed billboard is in no way defamatory, Rosenfield said, citing a list titled "Top 10 reasons why you cannot trust Mercury Insurance Co." on the group's website detailing customer complaints.

Mercury executives declined to comment on the list, King said.

The billboard was put up Aug. 24 and was supposed to remain until Sept. 20, Rosenfield said.

Consumer Watchdog paid $3,000 for the sign and was planning to extend the contract with CBS Outdoor for the billboard at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Wilton Place and to add other billboards with the same message around Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento, he said.

The billboard isn't the first point of contention between Rosenfield and Mercury.

Rosenfield wrote Proposition 103, a 1988 law that gave the elected insurance commissioner the authority to approve property and casualty rates before they go into effect.

The measure also discouraged the use of ZIP Codes in setting rates, and pushed for rates that take into account a driver's safety record, the number of miles driven each year and a driver's years behind the wheel.

Californians for Fair Auto Insurance Rates, a group funded by Mercury General Corp., is gathering signatures to put an initiative on the June ballot that seeks to essentially overturn Proposition 103 by removing the ban on surcharges for those with a lapse in coverage and other restrictions on how insurance companies set their rates.

The Consumer Watchdog billboard was pulled down with little notice, Rosenfield said, upstaging an impromptu midafternoon news conference in front of the sign.

Its replacement: an advertisement for the National Guard.

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nathan.olivarezgiles@latimes.com

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