A Virginia legislative committee, in a major victory for lawyers, today approved a bill that would make the state's required minimum automobile insurance coverage the nation's highest and increase annual premiums charged consumers by as much as $121.
The bill was passed by the House Corporations, Insurance and Banking Committee over the objections of insurance company lobbyists and state Insurance Commissioner Jay Newman, who warned that the increased costs would especially hurt the 300,000 Virginia drivers in the state's "assigned risk" pool and force some of them to forgo insurance altogether.
"Many people will be paying even more . . . [and] the number of uninsured motorists is going to increase," Newman told the committee.
Virginia's present coverage minimums of $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident are already among the nation's five highest. Under the new bill, those minimums would double and, because of the widely varying rates charged by insurance companies, annual premiums would rise anywhere from $4 to $71 for average drivers and from $49 to $121 for those in the assigned risk category, according to state estimates.
Fees charged by lawyers who specialize in injury lawsuits would also rise, critics contend, because the higher minimums would encourage higher damage awards and settlements in liability lawsuits growing out of traffic accidents. "It's inflationary and this whole business of liability insurance and the percentages that lawyers get frankly bothers me," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax), a committee member who opposed the bill.
But the bill was backed by influential lawyer-legislators, including committee chairman Del. C. Hardaway Marks (D-Hopewell) and House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss (D-Norfolk), as well by some nonlawyers who argued that the measure was needed to protect accident victims whose costs meet or exceed the present limits.
"The hospital ends up with $18,000 and the lawyer gets $6,000 and a person who might be totally disabled for life gets nothing," said the bill's sponsor, Del. Archibald A. Campbell (D-Wythe), himself an attorney. "It's a total disgrace."
Campbell, who said his own legal clients include both plaintiffs and insurers, contended that for most drivers, the increase in premiums would cost "less than a tank of gas."
But Newman and the insurance lobbyists, former state Bar Association president James Roberts and former Richmond delegate Philip Morris, argued that the bill would aid only the 1 percent of the state's accident victims whose claims exceed the present $25,000 minimum, while hurting consumers.
The bill's cosponsor, Del. George Allen, who heads one of the biggest law firms specializing in injury lawsuits in Richmond, attended today's hearing but did not speak. But, Allen, who last year sent a letter to plaintiff lawyers throughout the state asking them to support the bill, brought along a local accountant who endorsed the measure.
Callahan, a nonlawyer, said the lawyer-legislator's support for the bill "bothers me but it's part of the system here. I'm convinced the lawyers don't support these bills to line their own pockets but because they've convinced themselves that it's the right thing to do."
While the insurance bill won committee approval by 12 to 8, another controversial Allen-sponsored measure that would have helped plaintiffs in lawsuits narrowly was defeated by 19 to 17 in the state Senate. The bill, which passed the House of Delegates last year over the objections of some lawyer-legislators whose clients include insurers, would have created a legal presumption of negligence in some automobile accident cases that would have helped plaintiffs win larger settlements -- and higher attorneys' fees -- from insurance companies.