For Washington voters it’s deja vu all over again. Insurance companies and trial lawyers are duking it out over a statewide ballot measure. Consumers are stuck in the middle.
Two years ago it was over medical malpractice reform. This time the fight is over how much insurance companies should be penalized when they deny a legitimate claim.
Olympia correspondent Austin Jenkins has this voters' guide on Washington Referendum 67.
Referendum 67 is a chance for voters to give their thumbs up or thumbs down to a law the Washington legislature passed earlier this year.
The law says if your insurance company unreasonably denies a claim, you can sue and win up to triple damages. Health insurers are exempt.
The main campaign strategy for both sides: television and radio ads.
TV Ad: “I’d hoped Referendum 67 would help families like mine if we had an insurance claim. But the more I read, the more I realize it’s just a self-serving measure to let trial lawyers file more lawsuits.”
That’s a TV ad paid for by the No on 67 Campaign – the folks that put this measure on the ballot. The ad goes on to warn: more lawsuits will lead to higher insurance rates for everyone.
Karen Weaver: “Really it’s the premium payers who will see a huge jump in their premiums, with no increased coverage.”
Karen Weaver is a Seattle attorney who’s spent a career representing insurance companies – but she’s not working on the campaign. She’s also a part-time insurance law professor at the University of Washington. She says consumers who want to punish bad actors in the insurance industry should think twice before voting for R-67.
Karen Weaver: “Well, I’d say they’re cutting off their own nose to spite their face because the insurance company is simply going to pass the cost through back to that very same person. So you’re not getting at the insurance companies. You’re getting at yourself and your neighbor.”
Weaver adds that triple damages are the same as punitive damages – that is above and beyond your actual loss. And she says Washington State has a long history of saying no to that type of civil justice.
Karen Weaver: “This would be a massive departure from that tradition. I mean punitive damages may be the tradition in Texas, but they have never been the tradition in Washington – they’ve always been the exception.”
So far the No on 67 campaign has raised nearly $9 million – most of it from out-of-state insurance companies.
TV Ad: “Why do all these insurance companies want you to vote no on R-67? Well, in the whole country Washington is one of only five states where it’s not illegal for insurance companies to deny your legitimate claim.”
That’s an ad paid for by the Yes on 67 Campaign. It’s raised a million-and-a-half bucks – mostly from trial lawyers. The Yes campaign also has the support of Washington’s elected insurance commissioner, Mike Kreidler – a Democrat.
Mike Kreidler: “Clearly this is a way of making sure your insurance company will always deal with you fairly.”
Kreidler rejects the notion that R-67 will drive insurance companies out of the state and lead to higher premiums.
Mike Kreidler: “I cannot imagine for a moment that it’s going to have any impact whatsoever on the companies that are doing business – whether they’re going to do business in the state of Washington or not. As to whether it’s going to have an impact on rates that depends on the companies and whether they deal in good faith with their policy holders or not.”
However, the state budget office in its analysis does anticipate rate increases. Asked to point to a recent case that supports the need for R-67, Kreidler doesn’t hesitate.
Mike Kreidler: “Two words: Ethel Adams.”
In 2005, Adams was nearly killed when she was caught in the middle of a road rage incident. Her insurance company initially refused to pay saying she was the victim not of an accident, but a deliberate act.
Mike Kreidler: “That’s probably the best example in the last couple years of a case where a woman whose own insurance company tried to walk away from paying for a very egregious act that she had absolutely no role in.”
Eventually the company – under pressure – reversed its decision. This time around voters must decide if the added threat of lawsuits and triple damages are necessary to ensure that insurance companies act in good faith.