Texas–a state that already has on the books some of the toughest and most draconian tort reform measures in the country–was until recently in the process of passing a bill that would have (according to the Texas Tribune) made “it harder for homeowners and companies to recover certain damages from their insurance companies.” In the words of one state senator, this legislation would have “expressly immunize[d] wrongdoers.”
He goes on to explain, “That means a Texan who was wronged by [his or her] insurance adjuster or an insurance agent would be in a position of not being able to hold them responsible.”
The bill, SB 1628, passed in the state Senate but failed just before a vote in the state House of Representatives. One of the sponsors of this legislation, however, vows that “the bill [will] come back in the future.”
To be more specific, the law would set up a two-year time limit on seeking a claim from an insurance company, require individuals to “provide advance written notice” before suing over deceptive or unfair handling of a claim, and “lower the penalty that insurance companies face for late payments” to policyholders (among other things).
Civil justice blog ThePopTort, reporting on this story, argues that this bill is problematic not only to individuals and their attorneys, but to “homeowners, businesses, schools, churches”–nearly everyone except insurance companies (in the words of Alex Winslow, the executive director of Texas Watch, a consumer watchdog group).
Critics of the bill have been quick to point out that another of its sponsors, state Senator Larry Taylor, himself owns an insurance company in Texas. He, confusingly, claims that he is “actually working against [his] interest if you want to look at this like I’m doing this for a selfish purpose.” Many disagree.
One Texas attorney (who represents interests as varied as homebuilders, La Quinta Inns and Suites, and Sovereign Bank) explains, “Business policyholders in Texas spent millions of dollars on insurance premiums to protect their property, business, and various business interests. Many businesses would be financially crippled or significantly deterred without the insurance protection they purchased.” Similarly, a businessman asks, “Why are we looking at a bill that is pretty much strictly in favor of the insurance companies? Where in the bill does it protect families? Where in this bill does it protect the small businesses, the medium or large businesses? Nowhere.”
A public petition on Change.org helped raise awareness of this issue, and eventually garnered over 2,000 signatures. It includes strong language: “The bill rolls back decades of important policyholder protections. It incentivizes low-ball settlements, effectively immunizes insurance adjusters, agents, and employees, severely restricts when claims must be made, and creates ‘gotcha’ provisions that allow insurers to delay payments on valid insurance claims.”
The Texas Tribune notes that this legislation goes “beyond the typical liberal-against-conservative dynamic common in past battles over lawsuit restrictions” in that it is (according to a Texas attorney) “pure and simple, an insurance company bill against everybody else.”
As mentioned above, one of the bill’s sponsors has already claimed that he will not stop pushing this legislation, and a recent Houston Chronicle article claims that it’s possible that bits of the bill will make their way onto earmarks and additions to other proposed laws.