The Insurer Who Spied on Me: Disabled Man Sues Claiming The Hartford Unfairly Cut Off Benefits

"GMA" story on insurance company surveillance prompts more allegations of abuse.

November 11, 2009, 12:04 PM

April 7, 2010— -- Insurance companies say conducting video surveillance on claimants is often necessary to prevent insurance fraud, but some disabled people say their insurance company has gone too far. They are claiming the Hartford wrongfully terminated their disability benefits on the basis of innocuous surveillance video- which their doctors say isn't convincing evidence they can return to work.

We heard from these claimants after "Good Morning America" aired a story about Jack "Rocky" Whitten, who says his disability insurance benefits were unfairly cut off after a private investigator hired by The Hartford filmed him getting into a van, reading a magazine and dipping a taco chip into salsa.

Whitten, who has a broken neck, had been receiving disability benefits for years, but said shortly after the surveillance, his insurer, The Harford terminated his benefits and used that surveillance tape of him in part as evidence that he could return to work.

"I mean, they found the least little thing that makes no sense, I mean a chip weighs nothing," Whitten's wife, Leigh, said.

Whitten's benefits were ultimately reinstated, but after the "GMA" report aired we heard from dozens of people who said that what happened to Whitten also happened to them.

Eric Neubarth suffered a traumatic brain injury and says his benefits were cut off in part because he was taped doing his laundry and going to a deli for lunch.

Paul Hamel, who has degenerative disc disease, says his benefits were canceled in part because of videotape of him lifting his 2-year-old granddaughter.

And Evan Werner, who severely injured his back in a car accident, says The Hartford terminated his benefits in part because an investigator hired by The Hartford videotaped him going to a doctor's appointment and walking his dog. Their doctors said they were disabled, but The Hartford said all these people could perform sedentary work.

Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for America's Health Insurance Plans, an insurance industry lobby group, says the purpose of conducting surveillance isn't to terminate claims, but to gather information.

Disabled Man: 'I Didn't Do Anything Wrong'

"My understanding is that the video is never used as a stand-alone tool for decision making. And what I can say is that claims can be appealed," Pisano said.

Those appeals are handled by the insurance company, not an outside arbitrator, but Pisano said "ultimately it can go to court."

And that's exactly what Evan Werner and others are doing: they're suing, claiming The Hartford unfairly terminated their benefits.

Werner says after his car accident 19 years ago, doctors told the hospital technician that he couldn't return to work. But then a few years ago, a private investigator hired by The Hartford began staking him out.

After four unsuccessful attempts to videotape Werner outside his home, the investigator staked out his doctors office and taped him going to his appointment, leaving an Office Depot store and walking his Shih Tzu.

"I couldn't understand why they put this surveillance on me," Werner said. "You know, I'm not a criminal. I didn't do anything wrong."

Nine doctors said Werner was disabled and couldn't work, but a few months after they conducted surveillance, Werner received a letter from The Hartford stating his disability benefits were terminated because the surveillance tape -- along with other evidence -- showed he was "capable of performing full-time sedentary work."

"Not only am I still disabled, and that's not going to change, but they've destroyed me financially," Werner said.

Werner's lawyer, Mindy Chmielarz, is a partner for the DI Law Group which represents Werner and others who are suing the Hartford for alleged unfair claim termination involving videotaped surveillance. She says The Hartford's tactics are unfair.

"Planning surveillance and setting up your investigator in the doctor's office parking lot is dirty pool, you know you are going to get some type of activity, no matter how minimal it may be," she said.

But Pisano says regardless of the complaints, the track record for disability carriers speaks for itself.

Company Defends Surveillance

"Ninety-five percent of claims go through pretty easily," she said, but when she was asked if she would look at information on the individuals who contacted "Good Morning America," she said, "Well, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to be the person who is deciding what to do with it.

"Trade associations are not regulators," she said." What we do is tell our companies' story."

The Hartford declined a request to be interviewed by ABC News, but they sent a statement which said, in part, "Surveillance is not used as a stand-alone reason for a claim decision," and that the company decides to terminate disability benefits in less than two percent of all cases investigated using surveillance.

Click HERE to read the entire statement from the Hartford.

That doesn't provide much solace to people like Werner and the others who say they unfairly lost their benefits after being secretly taped.

"You know, they want to save money, great," Werner said. "Get it from somewhere else. But don't take it away from people who are legitimately disabled."

The Hartford refused to disclose detailed information to us about its surveillance practices, so we contacted officials in Florida and its insurance consumer advocate is now investigating (CLICK HERE for more on the investigation).

If regulators find The Hartford is engaged in unfair practices, the company could face large fines.

Click here to return to the "Good Morning America" Web site.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events