Whose fault?

By Mara Rockliff

Buy our product! It’s outrageously expensive. We hope you’ll never actually use it, but if you do, we’ll charge you even more. If you want to get your money’s worth, you’ll have to hire a lawyer. Of course, that’ll cost you, too. Not interested? Well, then [evil snicker], the law says you can’t drive.
Welcome to the wonderful world of auto insurance. You hate it. I hate it. And UVA law professor Jeffrey O’Connell has been hating it full time since 1965. Take an early lunch break Monday and come hear O’Connell, known as the “father of no-fault,” share his ideas for making auto insurance cheaper, easier, and lawyer-free… or maybe not.
Insurance companies love O’Connell. They love no-fault (which we don’t have in Virginia). And they love his push in recent years for a federal “Auto Choice” law requiring drivers to choose between no-fault and more expensive traditional insurance.
In case you missed the early ’70s, when no-fault was still popular, here’s the idea behind it: Let each insurer pay for its own driver’s medical bills, no matter who caused the accident. Skip the lawyers’ fees, the long wait for trials, the juries awarding insane amounts for intangible “pain and suffering.” Then the insurance companies can pass the savings on to drivers. (Or so they say– mysteriously, states with no-fault laws have some of the highest premiums in the country.) Under the proposed Auto Choice, if you don’t want no-fault insurance, pay a little extra for the right to sue. What’s not to like?
Plenty, say consumer rights groups like Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen (www.citizen.org) and the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights (www.consumerwatchdog.org).
For starters: Insurance companies make money by not paying claims. Do you really want to give them sole decision-making power about how much you’re owed? How about punishing the reckless jerk who hits your toddler? Under Auto Choice, you can sue– but only if you and the jerk have traditional insurance. If he carries no-fault, he’ll be free and clear, and you’ll be out of luck. There’s lots, lots more (check out the websites), but you get the idea.
Of course, some of the most vocal anti-Auto-Choicers are trial attorneys who stand to lose hefty 30 percent lawsuit cuts. So whom do you trust more– insurance companies or lawyers? Hmm. Maybe you’d better head over to UVA on Monday and ask the tough questions for yourself.

Hear UVA law professor Jeffrey O’Connell talk about “Injuries, Insurance, and Injustice for All,”  Monday, May 13, at 11am in the Meeting Room at University Village on Crestwood Drive off Old Ivy Road. Parking at University Village is limited; please park at the Miller Center (2201 Old Ivy Road) and take the shuttle bus to the forum. Free. 924-7889.

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