CHARLESTON -- The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce calls an insurance-related lawsuit bill detrimental to recent legal reforms made in the state, but supporters of the proposal disagree.
And the ensuing fight is bordering on nasty.
House Bill 4486 was passed 64-33 earlier this week and sent to the state Senate. The bill would let those who have filed an insurance claim get information about insurance coverage before they file a lawsuit. Currently, the information is made available by insurers after a lawsuit is filed.
The Chamber voiced opposition to the measure over the weekend before it passed the House, and that move upset House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley so much that he made a passionate 15-minute speech on the House floor Monday.
"Anti-legal reform ... are you kidding me?" Miley, D-Harrison, told other House members. "This will hopefully reduce lawsuits. If it doesn't we are no worse off.
"I don't care whether I get ... their endorsements again if I don't succumb and fall victim to their propaganda. I'm not going to play their game."
Miley, a personal injury attorney who also has experience as a defense lawyer, said he was most upset by the Chamber email calling the bill a "cracker killer" bill, meaning it would hurt the state's chances to get a company to build an ethane cracker plant here.
"It's shameful,' he said. "It's shameful.
"That's what really sent me into orbit. It's one thing to be against a bill, but it's quite another to go beyond reason to call it something that might be the biggest economic development in our state in the last 50 years. That was being reckless with language and incredibly irresponsible."
State Chamber President Steve Roberts said he thought Miley's comments were uncalled for.
"We've had lots of dialogue with him over the years," Roberts said. "We could have thrown a temper tantrum last year when he said they'd work on the Intermediate Appellate Court bill. They didn't, of course. We could've said, 'He doesn't have integrity.'
"But instead, we said, 'Well, we're disappointed. But that's the process we have to deal with. We'll come back to fight for this another day.'"
Miley said the frustration that led to his speech wasn't spurred just by a state Chamber e-mail calling HB4486 an "anti-legal reform bill" that "will cause chaos in the insurance world."
"The frustration stemmed from several different reasons," Miley said Wednesday. "The Chamber is, by no means, the only lobbying group or industry that engages in the same type of things that frustrated me.
"It seems to be becoming a more common practice. Labor does it. Environmentalists do it. They run around like Chicken Little saying the sky is falling."
Miley said the bill had been introduced for almost two weeks before it was put on the committee agenda.
"No one expressed concern or objections or questions about the bill," he said. "When they said this was a fast-tracked bill, it simply is not true. They watch the bills every day when they're introduced."
Miley noted that 12 other states have similar laws. He called the Chamber's email "hysterical hyperbole" and "fear mongering."
"This is taken verbatim from Florida's law," Miley said. "It's not some radical left-wing, trial lawyer bill. Georgia and Virginia, both seen as conservative states, have similar ones, too."
Roberts, however, disagrees with Miley.
"Let's call it what it is -- it is a trial lawyer bill," he said. "All of the sponsors are either a trial lawyer or someone who sells something to trial lawyers except for Bobbie Hatfield, who never has seen an anti-business bill she didn't fall in love with.
"Employers and potential employers, companies interested in coming to West Virginia or expanding in West Virginia, consistently tell us that our lawsuit fervor in West Virginia deters companies from investing and growing and hiring people in our state. We particularly hear this from manufacturing industries.
"If we want to attract manufacturers, the chemical industry, the jobs we're good for here in West Virginia – we have to just recognize our lawsuit climate hurts that."
Roberts said the bill is deceptive.
"It's like a coral snake," he said. "It might be pretty, but it's lethal. The bill sounds innocuous, but it's deadly. I don't know if it's intentionally written that way or not. It seems harmless and they're saying it could reduce the number of lawsuits filed, but it's a very big deal."
The bottom line, Roberts said, is that people are voting with their feet.
"As long as there has been humanity, people go where they can have a better way of life," he said. "If there are no jobs and economy, they won't stay here."
A member of the West Virginia Association for Justice board of directors commended Miley for taking a stand.
"There is no end of the word that's going to come by the passage of this bill," said Doug Spencer, an associate at the Charleston law firm of Hill Peterson Carper Bee & Deitzler. "All it does is disclose insurance limits, which a plaintiff gets now once a suit is filed.
"The object of this bill is to prevent litigation. If you can get this information prior to suit being filed, it might to do away with the need to file the lawsuit.
"For insurance companies to hide the ball, they're going to have to give it up after a suit is filed. Why not do it before and possibly eliminate a lawsuit filing?"'
Spencer also said he doesn't understand the Chamber opposition to the measure.
"Your guess is as good as mine," he said. "I have no understanding of where they're coming from with that."
Roberts said the Chamber doesn't lack integrity, as Miley suggested.
"I am pleased to be friends with many in our Legislature – some with whom we agree on many issues, others with whom we seldom agree – while in all cases seeking to maintain a healthy, professional working relationship," he said. "Occasional debates have tested that working relationship, particularly when legislators disagree with the predominant views of the business community for whom the Chamber advocates.
One such test has obviously arisen in the debate over HB 4486, about which there stands a significant disagreement between some delegates and the business community. That does not mean that in advocating our position we lack integrity; we are simply expressing a strongly held belief that represents the views of our members.
"The Chamber's opinion is that this bill is not in the best interest of job development in West Virginia. HB 4486 will be viewed in a national perspective, and it sends a bad message. ... Our analysis shows, the bill threatens to greatly expand the potential for lawsuits in West Virginia. This is the root of the Chamber's opposition."
Roberts said the state Chamber merely is "relating the prevalent concerns of the businesses in the communities around the state, as it does with many controversial bills."
"We will continue to do our job on behalf of employers in West Virginia, in the hope that the Legislature's interest in their concerns will increase. In doing so, however, we would like to express continued respect for those who oppose the business community in this discussion."
Roberts said the people in the insurance industry are beside themselves.
"They worked so hard to get a fix to third-party bad faith," he said, referring to the repeal in 2005. "And then this bill, if it passes, opens everything up to third-party bad faith lawsuits again."
The president of the West Virginia Insurance Federation agreed.
"The industry strongly opposes the bill," said Jill Bentz, who also
is a partner in Dinsmore's Charleston office. "Only one state that has one like this, and that is Florida. And Florida has some of the highest auto insurance rates in the country.
"West Virginia does not want to be like Florida."
Bentz said it's impossible to say if rates would increase here because of the bill.
"But you appreciate the facts, and you can look at the face of this bill that it creates an incentive for lawsuits," she said. "It would result in additional lawsuits, an additional cause of action, and it open the door for the return of third-party bad faith lawsuits."