S.C. senate sides with independent auto glass businesses in unanimous vote

gmartin@islandpacket.comJune 1, 2012 

Local independent auto-glass installers are hailing the passage of a bill that prohibits car-insurance agencies from directing clients toward preferred glass vendors.

The legislation, which passed last year in the state House and unanimously passed the Senate on Thursday, could stop what local glass installers call an unfair practice that has threatened their businesses in recent years.

"It was huge," said Greg Marcum of Sea Island Auto Glass in Beaufort, of the practice. "I can't begin to think how many customers had been pushed off to someone else."

The problem, Marcum said, is that divisions of corporations -- especially Ohio-based Safelite AutoGlass -- act ostensibly as independent third-party claims administrators to steer customers toward their affiliated repair services.

"It was really hard to deal with," Marcum said. "Safelite's a huge corporation that gobbled up the little guy."

The bill, which passed 37-0 on Thursday, prohibits third-party administrators from requiring that repairs be made by a particular auto-glass vendor.

It also states that, when applicable, administrators must immediately disclose they are acting on behalf of an insurance agency.

The bill, H4042, remains subject to the approval of Gov. Nikki Haley, who could sign it into law as early as next week.

The bill's language is not as strong as a version that passed the House last May, which would have prevented companies with an interest of 10 percent or more in a glass-repair business from acting as a third-party administrator.

In a statement, Safelite senior corporate counsel Brian DiMasi called the reformed bill a compromise, adding he hopes it will be signed into law.

"In the end, all parties came to the table and worked very hard to address their respective concerns," he wrote.

Despite the softened terms of the bill, its passage was embraced by Randy Browning, owner of Glass Express in Beaufort, who said it closed a legal loophole.

"I don't have the luxury of having my own glass factory like (Safelite) does," he said. "And as a small business, I can't spend tons of money on the airwaves telling people they need a product they might only use once every 10 years."

Browning, who claimed Safelite's policies had helped put a local competitor out of business earlier this year, said the law would help the local economy.

"This will give local agents a choice to do business with local people," he said, "and that's always a good thing."

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