Consumers Shouldn’t Be Restricted in Their Right to Sue

(Philadelphia Inquirer – September 3, 1989)

By Leonard A. Sloane

Rep. Stephen F. Freind has initiated a drumbeat of attacks over the past few months questioning the motives of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association in the statewide debate over auto insurance reform. Instead of debating the merits of the different proposals, he is trying to make his case on the superficial assertion of trial lawyers’ self-interest.

The facts tell another story. Any auto insurance reform will adversely affect the pocketbooks of all trial lawyers. Yet, because we understand the public demand to reduce auto insurance rates, we have chosen not to take the easy way out by championing the status quo – which our members would clearly prefer.

In his rhetoric, Freind neglects to say that trial lawyers have an absolute coincidence-of-interest with our very large, important and otherwise unrepresented constituency, thousands of Pennsylvania consumers who are injured in automobile collisions, victims whose lives have been altered by reckless, drunk and uninsured drivers.  We represent not only current victims, but also those who will become victims in the future and will want and need access to the courts. Thus, we have a duty to our clients to oppose legislation that would restrict their individual rights to pursue cases in court. Yet that is what the proposal forwarded by Freind and Gov. Casey would do. In the Casey-Freind plan, which the Senate wisely rejected, the principal premium relief is available only to the policyholder who would give up access to the courts when injured by a reckless driver. In essence, those who cause accidents – including virtually all drunk drivers, would benefit at the expense of good drivers and accident victims.

Ironically, the plan has the familiar ring of New Jersey’s flawed auto insurance program.

The fairest proposal before the General Assembly is actually called House Bill 121. Under this bill, policyholders would have the choice of not purchasing some coverages (including medical, wage loss and funeral) currently mandated by law.  It is important to point out that about 90 percent of Pennsylvanians already have substitutes for these coverages in the form of health insurance, sick leave, disability insurance and life insurance.

These substitutes are normally paid for with tax-free dollars as an employee benefit. In contrast, auto insurance is typically paid for out of hard-earned after tax dollars.

Consumers who exercise this choice will reap, on average, a reduction of at least 26 percent in the premium for the state’s minimum allowed coverage. That exceeds the 21 percent average savings on the mandated premium merely promised by the Casey-Freind plan in return for heaving overboard invaluable rights to sue and go to court.

House Bill 121 gets to the root of the problem of high insurance costs. It attacks unmeritorious suits, fraud and abuse. It helps control spiraling health care costs, a key factor contributing to rising rates. The bill allows relief for consumers victimized by insurance company bad faith.

It cracks down on uninsured motorists.  It mandates specific savings for automobiles with anti-theft, seat belt and airbag restraint systems. It provides for mandatory good driver discounts, puts more teeth into drunk driving laws and places limits on policyholder surcharges and late payment penalties.

In short, it contains the firepower needed to put the brakes on runaway auto insurance costs.  At the same time, it protects the ordinary person’s chance of receiving fair treatment.

Ask yourself whose special interests Freind really represents. Does he represent the consumer or factions of the insurance industry who consistently seem to get his vote?

If Freind wins his war against the consumer, Pennsylvania’s law – like New Jersey’s, would promote rather than eliminate overutilization, abuse and fraud on the part of unscrupulous claimants, lawyers, doctors and repair shops. Pennsylvania consumers would be the recipients of a “double whammy” – insurance companies would continue to pass these costs through to the policyholders, and consumers would have less leverage to get fair treatment than exists today.

The bottom line is House Bill 121 – unlike the Casey-Freind measure is clearly constitutional and much fairer to the vast majority of Pennsylvanians.