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Press Release

Lawyers Have Reform Plan


From the Charleston Daily Mail, January 23, 2004, Friday
Copyright 2004 Charleston Newspapers

After hearing the third different insurance reform proposal to emerge in the Legislature this week - this time from a group of trial lawyers and Senate Democrats, many who also are trial lawyers - Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse was impressed.

"I'm impressed by all the snazzy Italian suits they're all wearing," said the Kanawha County Republican, who'll work to get some of his own proposals for tort reform through the Legislature this session.

The group of attorneys, along with members of the state's Citizen Action Group, stood on the steps outside the Senate chambers Wednesday to argue against any sort of tort reforms they say would limit consumers' rights to sue and plaintiffs' potential to win money when they've been mistreated.

The proposal they instead offered to lawmakers, one that's backed by major players in the Senate like Majority Leader Truman Chafin and Judiciary Chairman Jeffrey Kessler, focuses on re-development of the state's consumer advocacy division.

The division, which operates under the Insurance Commission, needs more oversight from the governor and the Legislature, the state Trial Lawyers Association says. Advocates' budgets can't be funded through fees from insurance companies, Chafin said, or consumers' concerns about unfair rates never will be heard.

The only insurance reform bill that's making much headway at all right now - one that creates an insurance fraud unit to investigate false claims - is expected to pass through the House of Delegates today.

But with the Senate seemingly split along party lines about the need for tort reform, the bill could face another long road and quite a few overhauls if it passes the House, Senate leaders say.

Chafin argued against imposing any sort of tort reforms like Senate Republicans are pushing. They advocate capping punitive damage awards, fielding some of those awards to state victims' rights groups and volunteer fire departments, making judges' elections non-partisan and limiting the potential for third-party bad faith litigation.

"If you pass Republican tort reform, they tell you straight up they aren't for certain going to reduce insurance rates," Chafin said. "If we're going to go with reforms, we should ask insurance companies for mandatory rollbacks and rate decreases. When (insurance companies) come before the Insurance Commissioner asking for a rate increase, let's make them tell the whole story behind those increases."

Chafin, the Trial Lawyers' Association and other tort reform challengers blame premium hikes on insurance companies' losses in the stock market and other factors in the economy, not on frivolous lawsuits reform supporters say drive up costs.

Sen. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, also an attorney, notes that rates won't change unless state-provided advocates investigate all the factors that drive up premiums.

He cited the high number of automobile insurance claims he says are directly related to run-ins with deer on the state's roads, and said the average family pays $ 44 on their premiums to offset those costs.

Sprouse sees potential for compromise between Senate and House reform proposals, but said the trial lawyers' plan benefits them and not many consumers.

"These guys are making a lot of money and they don't want to lose that," Sprouse said. "I think most people probably think the amount of money they're getting from frivolous suits is wrong, and if these are all the tort reforms we see this year, then at least the trial lawyers will be happy."