CHARLESTON – A much-debated insurance bill passed both the House of Delegates and state Senate and now awaits the governor's signature.
House Bill 4486 passed the Senate 18-16 on the last day of the regular session Saturday. The bill would let someone who has filed an insurance claim get information about coverage before a lawsuit is filed. Currently, the information is made available by insurers after a lawsuit is filed.
Critics said the original bill was detrimental to recent legal reforms in the state. The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce pushed hard against the original measure. Proponents of the bill say it actually could reduce the number of lawsuits filed.
"This is greatly modified from the horrible version passed by House," state Chamber President Steve Roberts said. "It barely passed the Senate. We just needed another vote.
"The idea was number four on the plaintiff bar's wish list. And we wonder why we rank 50th on all national rankings of our legal climate.
"The Senate made the bill much, much less onerous. Still, it sent chills up the spine of business leaders. They are very aware of it and see it as evidence that jobs took a back seat to the trial bar."
The president of the West Virginia Insurance Federation agreed that the bill sent to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was "far better" than the version that passed the House.
"It is very very similar to the Virginia statute," said Jill Bentz, who also is a partner in Dinsmore's Charleston office. "It places some burden on the requestor to legitimize the existence of a claim. And that gives some comfort to insurers in producing insurance information prior to a lawsuit being filed."
Bentz said the revised bill says that any request by a claimant's attorney – it is limited to an attorney – must include a written request, the date of the incident, the name of the insured, the last known address of the insured, a copy of the accident or incident report, the insurer's claim number, a good faith estimate, documentation of medical expenses, lost wages documents and documentation of any and all property damage. She said the bill limits such claims to those only from motor vehicle accidents.
"If we're going to be one of the 12 or states to have such a statute, it's better to have one of the more conservative ones," Bentz said.
Both Roberts and Bentz said their groups would not push for a veto on the bill from Tomblin.
But Roberts did say he was "hugely disappointed" in state Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants. Her vote could be seen as the swing vote, creating a 17-17 tie if she had voted against the measure.
"If the Republicans would stick together, they could have much more influence," Roberts said.
Boley responded by calling out Roberts.
"I have not seen him all session," Boley said. "He should come to see me to talk about his thoughts on bills. He does not do that.
"Most people seem satisfied with the bill after it left the Senate. If Steve has a problem with something, he should've come and talked to me about it. I don't think there is anything wrong with that bill."
The West Virginia Association for Justice supports the measure.
"We supported both the House and Senate versions," WVAJ Treasurer Tony Majestro, a Charleston attorney, said. "We are at a loss to explain the Chamber's opposition to either bill. We think the bill will decrease the number of lawsuit filings.
"Listen, we're the ones out there doing this work. We think this bill will stop some lawsuits from being filed. And frankly, the Chamber's rhetoric on this is detrimental to the state."
The executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse said the bill is a step backward for the state.
"The need for legal reform is one of the most obvious issues facing our state -- a fact that far too many lawmakers are unwilling to recognize," Richie Heath said Tuesday. "Instead of addressing the real problems with West Virginia's legal system -- such as a lack of an intermediate appeals court, excessive judge shopping by out-of-state plaintiffs, and an extreme medical monitoring standard to name but a few -- a majority of the Legislature was busy passing legislation that worsens our state's legal climate.
"Moreover, lawmakers have actually regressed by passing House Bill 4486, which is nothing more than a personal injury lawyer giveaway that could very well increase lawsuit filings for the state. Ultimately, West Virginia consumers will pay the price for this ill-conceived legislation.
"As a result, job creators cam be expected to continue to ignore West Virginia because it is an unfriendly place to do business."
The state Chamber originally had voiced opposition to the measure 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.
"Anti-legal reform ... are you kidding me?" Miley, D-Harrison, told other House members last month. "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."