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Press Release

Parties Split On Insurance Issue


From the Charleston Daily Mail January 22, 2004, Thursday
Copyright 2004 Charleston Newspapers

While Senate Republicans unveiled what they call the most sweeping tort reform package the state has ever seen, their proposals haven't yet caught the eye of House leadership or the Senate Democrat who will get first crack at the legislation.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, who will decide whether to take up the Republican proposals to cap punitive damages, tackle third-party lawsuits and make judges' elections non-partisan, said the ideas are nothing he hasn't seen before and not something he's especially interested in seeing again.

"A lot of the tort reform proposals are just like those we've had in the past, and, frankly, I'm not very supportive of most of them," Kessler said.

Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, along with at least half a dozen other Republican senators, unveiled a bill Wednesday that would cap punitive damage and non-economic awards, funnel portions of punitive damage awards to state coffers and require attorneys to take new steps in disclosing fees and contacting potential claimants.

Republican leaders also have said they would introduce legislation in the coming days that would make judges' elections non-partisan and help squelch third-party bad faith litigation.

"I think what the House has done is fine, and I praise them for doing something, but I think it's a weak bill," Sprouse said. "We have to stop addressing problems in the state like we did (last year) with Workers' Compensation and medical malpractice where we just keep taking these baby steps."

The House today was poised to vote on a bill that not only would establish the state's first insurance fraud investigation unit, but also includes amendments that would change the way multiple defendants pay on claims, give automobile insurers more flexibility to drop clients and bar insurance rates from being based on a person's credit rating.

If the bill passes in the House, Sprouse said his Republican caucus would try to amend it. He says the current legislation doesn't go far enough to help businesses in the state fight the frivolous lawsuits he says are helping drive up insurance rates for consumers.

As a small business owner himself, Sprouse said, "We worry the next person who walks through the door might be the person to sue us out of business."

Sen. Sarah Minear, R-Tucker, said the state has waffled too long in making fundamental changes in its justice system, and Sen. Frank Deem, R-Wood, argued that insurance companies were being made to "look like the bad guys" when frivolous lawsuits and payouts lead them to increase rates.

"Because of our liberal tort law we have in this state, it's having a huge ripple effect on home owners, real estate agents, car buyers, car dealers," she said. "It's affecting the banking business because people can't get loans unless they can get insurance."

The West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association on Wednesday fired back at the Republican agenda and potential amendments that would cap damages for those who sue.

The group plans to send every legislator copies of almost 5,000 postcards from people in West Virginia who say tort reform isn't necessary.

Association director Marvin Masters said insurance rates are being driven up by changes in the market and the floundering profits of companies' stocks.

"Insurance companies are doing fine," he said. "They made over $ 21 billion in the first three quarters of last year. The legislature here would like to pass laws now to take consumers' rights away in one day."