The Auto Parts Puzzle: What Happens to your Car in a Repair?

WEST MONROE, La. - Michael McDonald has worked around cars in Northeast Louisiana for more than 30 years.
 
He's learned more than a thing or two in that time, including what's safe to put on a car.
 
When asked if it was safe to put a car on the road with parts that didn't come from a manufacturer, his answer was simple.
 
"No."
 
But that's exactly what an insurance company did to his vehicle.
 
When one of his work trucks was in a wreck, he did what we're all supposed to do...
 
Call insurance, take it to a body shop, and have them work together to get it repaired.
 
But Michael said when he looked at the repairs to his bumper, headlights, and back end, it wasn't right.
 
He says the insurance company instructed the body shop to put on non-original equipment manfucaturer, or non-oem, parts.
 
"They also didn't want to put oem parts back on my truck," McDonald said. "I had to pay an additional $1,200 out of my pocket to get OEM parts rather than parts that came out of a wrecked, salvage yard, what may be, or third party parts that do not fit exactly."
 
McDonald is far from the only local car owner who's had to deal with this.
 
Kenny Peaker's truck only needed basic repairs after an accident, but it turned into a nightmare.
 
The aesthetic repairs he needed didn't meet the manufacturer's specificatons...and it showed.
 
"There were runs in the paint, there were scratches still in the door, there was trash in the front post on the window," Peaker said. "There was all kinds of issues."
 
"There's a huge fight that goes on that most people are unaware of...between the body shops that are loyal to customers and the insurance industry," said John Eaves, an attorney out of Jackson Mississippi.
 
He represents body shops in many states who are battling insurance companies in court.
 
Eaves said major insurers are encouraging shops to use aftermarket parts.
 
"They're also demanding that these body shops do not put on original manufacturer parts," Eaves said. "There's a safety issue." 
 
The problem goes well beyond a few shops or upset customers.
 
In 2014, former Lousiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell filed suit against State Farm, the state's biggest insurer. 
 
The suit alleged State Farm's repair program prioritized cost over quality, and claimed it was dangerous to drivers.
 
Caldwell left office in 2016, but current Attorney General Jeff Landry's team tells me the case is still ongoing. 
 
Eaves hopes Landry will continue to push back against insurers.
 
"It is my hope that Louisiana...will reengage with the fight and take all the information they collected during (Caldwell's) administration and move forward to protect customers here in Louisiana," Eaves said.
 
KTVE/KARD reached out to four major insurers. 
 
Two, Progressive and State Farm responded to our requests.
 
State Farm responded with this statement..
 
"The State Farm car policy allows for the use of non-OEM parts. With regard to non-OEM crash parts, we continue our business practice of not specifying aftermarket crash parts on estimates we prepare and those prepared by select service repairers unless those parts are requested by a vehicle owner."
 
So they claim it's an option, but they won't do it without you asking.
 
Progressive referred me to the Property Casualty Insurers of America, who represent Progressive and more than 1,000 insurance companies nationwide.
 
They were more open about the use of non-OEM parts. 
 
"It's not unusual not only for insurers to specify the use of aftermarket parts on their estimates, but for body shops to use them," said Bob Passmore, PCI's Assistant Vice President of Personalized Policy.
 
"They're a cost-effective alternative," Passmore said. "They help hold down costs, not only for people that are getting their cars repaired through insurance, but there's a lot of people who have older cars that don't carry collision coverage and they pay for repairs out of their own pocket. So the aftermarket parts provide a cost-effective alternative for them as well."
 
Passmore also said non-OEM parts are just as safe as those from the manufacturer.
 
"Well there's been quite a bit of research done," Passmore said. "The insurance institute for highway safety a number of years ago did some crash tests, showing that using an aftermarket part doesn't affect safety."
 
The last study on the IIHS website that claims there are no safety differences at all between OEM and non-OEM parts is from 2000.
 
Since then, there have been multiple stories that say otherwise.
 
A 2010 article by the IIHS says "Some parts, like bumpers, do provide structural strength. Neglecting to build them to the same specifications as original equipment could affect how much damage occurs in a crash or how well occupants are protected."
 
The article does show that some aftermarket bumpers can be built close to those specifications, if they meet certain certified automotive parts association standards, but even those that meet standards aren't the same.
 
This goes along with a series of crash tests by Ford in 2010 that found cars replaced with aftermarket bumpers, like the one put on mcdonald's truck, can prevent air bags from deploying.
 
In a Consumer Reports article on that study, Chief Research Officer for the IIHS David Zuby is quoted as saying "The vehicle structure is part of a complex system designed to protect people in crashes, as well as hold up the engine. There's a lot of engineering that goes into making a crash protection system. You can't willy nilly change those parts, because the system won't work the way it was designed....there's too much unknown to recommend them."
 
In other words, the group that conducted the study PCI and thier insurers use to say that aftermarket parts are safe...has since come out and said that's not entirely true.
 
"They don't care...At all," McDonald said. "The only thing they're about is how much money they make."
 
Fortunately for McDonald, he had the knowledge and resources to fix the potentially faulty repairs on his own.
 
But if you're like most people, you probably can't spot the difference between OEM and non-OEM parts...and can't afford to pay for repairs on your own.
 
If so, you have to wonder what might happen when your car goes into the shop.
 
So, what should you do if your car gets into a wreck? 
 
Read here for expert advice on what to know and what questions to ask your insurance company after an accident.
 

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