By Truman Lewis

September 13, 2009
It's not unusual for businesses to respond aggressively when consumers go online to complain about them, but it's not often a billboard causes a major dust-up. In Los Angeles, the non-profit consumer group Consumer Watchdog is demanding that CBS Outdoor reinstall a bright yellow billboard that read "Consumer Watchdog Says: 'You Can't Trust Mercury Insurance'".

CBS Outdoor must re-install the billboard immediately and fulfill its contractual obligation, the consumer group demanded in a letter to the billboard company sent last week. The letter, from First Amendment lawyer Anthony Glassman said that Consumer Watchdog would sue CBS Outdoor if the company did not honor the contract.

On August 24, after following the standard protocol for posting billboard ads, CBS Outdoor posted the billboard at Wilshire Blvd. and Witlon Place near downtown Los Angeles. Sometime around September 3rd, CBS Outdoor ripped the sign down without notifying Consumer Watchdog in violation of the contract. According to a CBS representative, Mercury Insurance's Chairman, billionaire George Joseph, complained and threatened CBS, leading to the removal of the sign.

At its Web site -- the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization has listed the Top 10 Reasons that Mercury, the third largest auto insurer in California, can't be trusted. The group cites punishments Mercury received from regulators in California and Florida for its claims-handling practices, as well as smoking gun documents exposing the company's practices of lowballing policyholders with claims and incentivizing its body shops to use aftermarket and junkyard-refurbished parts rather than original manufacturer parts when repairing policyholders' cars.

The group also posted a legal brief from the California Department of Insurance in which the Department wrote: "Among Department [of Insurance] staff, consumer attorneys, and consumer victims of its bad faith, Mercury has a deserved reputation for abusing its customers and intentionally violating the law with arrogance and indifference."

Consumer Watchdog's Executive Director Douglas Heller said: "What's worse than CBS Outdoor breaking its contract and pulling down the billboard, is the fact that Mercury's customers who might have been informed by the billboard, won't be apprised of the problems they might face if they ever need Mercury to pay a claim."

In its letter calling on CBS Outdoor to replace the billboard, Consumer Watchdog's attorney Glassman cited the group's contract with the billboard firm, which reads: "If Copy is furnished and delivered as required above and such Copy is not rejected by Company pursuant to the terms hereof (i) the Copy shall be posted... "

Glassman wrote: "The "Copy" furnished and delivered to CBS Outdoor was not rejected and was subsequently posted by CBS Outdoor as required by the terms of the contract. Once posted, it should have remained through the term of the contract as the Copy did not violate any of the terms requiring removal under the contract, i.e., it did not contain [n]udity, pornographic, profane or obscene copy, which would have precluded its initial posting." Glassman added, "Having been approved by CBS Outdoor, and not being in violation of any of the terms of the contract, you are estopped from removing it prior to the period paid for under the contract."

The group is demanding that the billboard be reinstalled for 16 days, which represents the least number of days left on the contract when CBS removed the billboard. Consumer Watchdog has not yet determined when the billboard was actually removed.