Opinion

Referendum 67 is all about money

by Don C. Brunell
President, Association of
Washington Business

Referendum 67 is all about money. The measure, which will appear on the November ballot, purportedly targets insurance companies. But make no mistake, its all about money your money. It will mean more money out of your pocket for higher insurance premiums and more money in the pockets of the attorneys who are pressing the lawsuits.
Lets be clear. People should be fairly compensated for legitimate losses as quickly as possible and, in the vast majority of cases, they are. When theres a problem, policyholders already have access to an array of consumer protections. The courts should be the last resort.
Despite this, Gov. Gregoire signed a new law recently allowing plaintiffs to sue for triple damages if an insurance company unreasonably denies their claim. Its bad law. Because citizens challenged the new law, voters will be asked to either affirm or reject it. A vote for R-67 will keep the new law; a no vote will nullify it.
Voters should say no to R-67. Its unnecessary and will increase insurance premiums.
According to a study by Milliman Research, R-67 would boost insurance costs by over $205 a year for every Washington family. The Wisconsin-based firm analyzed five other states with similar legislation and found that peoples insurance bills increased between 3.5 percent and 7 percent.
Washingtons increase could be even higher. R-67 creates the lowest standard in the nation for awarding triple damages against an insurer. In other states, a plaintiff must prove intentional, wrongful conduct on the part of the insurer. No such proof is required by R-67. Because the attorneys pocket as much as 40 percent of a settlement or award, the measure promises to be a bonanza for trial lawyers. For consumers, it is not so good.
Supporters say insurance companies have nothing to fear if they treat their policyholders fairly. Not true.
The low legal threshold, combined with the chance to get triple damages, will be an incentive for people to file lawsuits. After all, theres nothing to lose. Unlike Europe, the United States has no loser pays provision, which is why America is awash in frivolous lawsuits. Because court battles are expensive regardless of the validity of the lawsuit, insurance companies will be inclined to settle these suits.
The formula is simple. More lawsuits equals more settlements equals higher costs equals higher premiums.
The states Office of Financial Management acknowledges that R-67 will result in more lawsuits and higher insurance premiums for state and local governments. If R-67 passes, Washington citizens will pay twice. Theyll pay higher premiums for their personal insurance and higher premiums for state and local government policies.
The question voters need to ask is this really necessary?
Existing laws allow consumers to file lawsuits for bad faith and breach of contract. People with legitimate claims can sue under the Consumer Protection Act, which generally permits recovery of attorney fees and triple damages up to $10,000.
In addition, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler oversees and disciplines insurance companies if they cause problems. He can impose fines and penalties and even pull their licenses to operate in our state.
Statistics show that problems with insurance companies are rare. For example, of the estimated 200,000 auto claims filed each year, only 0.1 percent result in a complaint to the insurance commissioners office. Further, Kreidler reported to the Legislature that 88 percent of consumers who contacted his office with an insurance company complaint were pleased with the results.
R-67 was a bad idea when the Legislature passed it, and its a bad idea today. Voters can right a wrong and save hard-working families some money money that would be better spent for groceries, school supplies or gas for their commute.

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