One step forward, two steps back.

That's what we were thinking while reading the West Virginia Supreme Court's recent opinion in Dairyland Insurance v. Conley.

Just two months after the state's insurance commission announced that—- after four years of auto insurance increases, Mountain State drivers would finally get a price break—- the Empire struck back.

Drivers' Darth Vader in this case was Justice Larry Starcher, who effectively put on his insurance regulator's hat and ruled that Stephanie Michelle Conley was, in fact, covered when she caused a 2001 car accident, even though she hadn't paid her insurance premiums.

The check Conley mailed to West Virginia National Insurance for her first premium had bounced. But as per Starcher and the court, the company was still obligated to pay for damages she caused in the collision, which caused three injuries, because it hadn't given her 30 days notice that the policy was cancelled.

The net effect of this on the rest of us drivers is anybody's guess, but rest assured it won't be trust positive.

And trust is what makes an economy roll.

That we apply for car insurance and a company will immediately oblige with coverage is a convenience we've all taken for granted at some point in our lives. Like the waiter serving you food before presenting the bill, the insurer assumes in good faith that you're mailing the payment. If you don't, the deal's off.

And Conley didn't, instead pulling the equivalent of a car insurance dine-and-dash.

We wouldn't force West Virginia restaurants to hand out free meals. So why is it just to force insurance companies to provide free coverage to such deadbeats?

It isn't. And don't think this kind of flippant judicial activism comes without a price.

Starcher's ruling will cause a unique "freeloader" applicant problem that portends to change the way auto insurers operate in West Virginia for the worse. That means more inconvenience, fewer choices, and higher prices for all us.

Two steps back. The beat goes on.

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