The Senate Commerce Committee approved a no-fault auto insurance bill 9 to 7 yesterday, after weeks of bitter squabbling and heavy lobbying by insurance companies, consumer groups, labor unions and lawyer organizations.
The bill, which involves billions of dollars in auto insurance premiums, lawyer fees and accident benefits, faces an uncertain future on the Senate floor and in the House of Representatives.
Under the bill, each state would have four years to establish a no-fault system under its own insurance laws. After that, the Departmentcof Transportation would step to and do so. The bill sets minimum standards for state no-fault systems.
Transportation Secretary Brock Adams called the committee vote a "courageous stand for consumers."
Under the standards set out in the bill, a motorist injured in an auto accident would not have to sue to recover damages from another drier, nor would a person go uncompensated if injured in a one-car accident.
Instead, his own no-fault insurance policy would cover him for up to $100,000 medical and rehabilitation expenses plus up to $12,000 a year for loss of income plus death benefits of $1,500.
An injured person could sue another driver for damages only if he were continuously dsabled for at least 180 days or suffered permanent injuries, the loss of a bodily function, permanent scars of disfiguration. His surrvivors could sue if he were killed.
Chief Senate sponsor Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash) likened the system to workers compensation and said it would shift billions of dollars now used up in lawyers fees for minor damage suits directly into the pockets of injured motorists by doing away with needless awsuits.
But some insurance and legal groups disagree with Magnuson's view and strongly oppose the bill.
Commerce Committee Chairman Howard W. Cannon (D-Nev.) who voted for the bill, said it is not clear whether the bill can become law this year in view of possible delays and House inaction so far. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D.S.C.), an opponent, said that even if the bill were approved by the Senate "It will never get through the House.
The Senate defeated a no-fault bill 49 to 46 in 1972, approved one 53 to 42 in 1974 and rejected one 49 to 45 in 1976. The 1974 bill did not clear the House.
Present in that room at the time of the vote were representatives of the White House and Transportation Department, which favor the measure, half a dozen unions backing it, the Consumer Federation of America and National Consumers League, several insurance firms also backing it, and S. Lynn Suteliffe, president of the Committee for Consumers No-Fault.
Also visible were Tom Korologos and Tom Boggs, representing the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, and Tom O'Day, representing a large group of insurance companies opposed to the bill, and spokesmen for the National Conference of State Legislatures, which opposes the bill on grounds that it would put the federal government into regulation of state insurance.
Just before the vote, Sen, John A. Durkin (D-N.H.) denounced the bill for failing to regulate state insurance rate-setting practices.
Durkin, a former insurance commissioner in New Hampshire, predicted "massive windfalls" for the insurance industry. He said that without some federal mechanism to make local insurance commissioners crack down on needlessly high rates, "they're going to get a healthy chunk of your wallet."
The object of heaby lobbying by the Carter administration and consumer groups, Durkin said he would vote for the bill in committee because of other features, but vowed to take his fight to the Senate floor.
Magnuson disputed Durkin's charges of excess profits for the insurance industry on the basis of Michigan's experience with a no-fault system. Sponsors say they fear that if the bill brings the federal government into state rate-making procedured, insurance companies that now favor the measure will turn against it and kill it.