More and more, a youth misspent (for low pay at that) as an insurance adjuster is turning out to have had some value. So when it comes to the current insurance crisis (a special segment on NBC, a cover of Time), Cohen of Claims, as I once billed myself, knows who is at fault. It's you.
You would hardly get that impression from what you're reading, and certainly not from the mail I get. There, in press releases and studies so massive I have saved their reading for my retirement, the insurance industry and trial lawyers are slugging it out. The former blames the latter for suing at the drop of a hat or, worse, a scalpel. And the latter blame the former for hiking rates to compensate for bad investments -- back when insurance industry prospects were, like interest rates, sky high.
For most of us, a fight between the insurance industry and lawyers is the domestic equivalent of the Iraq-Iran war: may it simply continue. But in this particular war, the casualties are close to home. Bus lines have ceased operating because they cannot get liability insurance. The tram from New York's Roosevelt Island to Manhattan ceased operating when the premium was raised from $800,000 a year to nearly $9 million. Some cities have had to close their parks and playgrounds because they either could not get -- or could not afford -- liability insurance.
These examples, though, are in the nuisance category compared with the effect the insurance crisis has had on physicians and, as a consequence, the poor. In some places, clinics have had to shut down. The poor have been sent away, some of them surely to die. The country now faces the ultimate irony: a poor person might not be able to get medical attention, but should he get it -- and should something go wrong -- he could almost certainly get a lawyer to sue.
Cohen of Claims saw this coming a long time ago. Back then, I knew a vast industry existed in which the raw materials consisted of phony or marginal claims. This industry included lawyers who, because of contingency fees guaranteeing them as much as half the award, were willing to take almost any case -- and get a payment sometimes just for filing a claim. It also included physicians who could, like fortune tellers, divine whiplash just by running their hands over X-rays. And, finally, it included the insurance companies themselves. It was often cheaper to settle a claim than fight it. This, in turn, encouraged lawyers to file even more claims.
But all these doctors and all these lawyers had to have patients or clients. In other words, they had to have a public that saw the negligence suit as a way to make a buck -- as yet another entitlement. Back then everyone in the industry knew that there was a difference between urban and rural areas. In urban areas, an accident was almost sure to produce a suit. In rural areas that was rarely the case. There, the two parties were likely to know one another. A handshake and a check usually settled a claim.
Ironically, in an era that proclaims a return to the ideals of community, the current crisis in liability insurance documents just the opposite -- atomization and, its handmaiden, alienation. We sue the stranger. We sue the other guy. We sue as if we are disconnected from the implications of the suit -- higher premiums and the social cost. Juries set their awards in the same way. Everyone involved feels disconnected from the consequences of his action.
Now we are feeling the consequences. Civil lawsuits have mushroomed and million-dollar verdicts, once rare, are now almost commonplace. (There were 401 judgments of a million dollars or more in 1984.) Doctors can't get insurance and blame trial lawyers, and lawyers blame the insurance companies.
Cohen of Claims knows they all have a point. For years both sides said nothing while elements among them turned personal injury into a growth industry, second only to drugs in profit and immorality. But just as with drugs, there has to be more than a middle man. There has to be a consumer who is also, and maybe mostly, at fault. That, as we said at the beginning, is you.