We all know that lobbyists carry a lot of weight in Washington, Salem and other state capitals nationwide, but the lack of political will currently on display in Salem is especially hard to watch.
At issue is House Bill 3160. According to a recent article in The Oregonian, this modification to Oregon’s Unlawful Trade Practices Act would allow “Oregonians to sue companies for not paying claims promptly, denying coverage for losses or medical bills, and other reasons.” It would, in short, end the inexcusable exemption the insurance industry has long enjoyed from public accountability for its worst excesses.
The newspaper notes that “unlike similar laws in other states, House Bill 3160 would also allow third-party defendants to sue. For instance, an auto body shop would be able to sue a customer’s car insurance company even if it wasn’t the policyholder.” Put another way: by allowing third parties who have been wronged by insurers to sue the legislation would make it harder for large insurance companies to push ordinary Oregonians around. Protections like these are absolutely necessary after the many, many excesses of the insurance industry. The Oregonian notes that similar legislation was passed at the federal level in 2007, though that law specifically exempts health insurance companies.
Unsurprisingly, the insurance industry opposes the bill. But it says something about how times have changed that one of HB 3160’s supporters is former Governor Ted Kulongoski, who, as the paper notes, opposed similar legislation when he served as state insurance commissioner in the 1980s.
The fact that this type of Oregon consumer protection legislation is necessary says a lot about the balance of power between businesses and the public here and elsewhere in the country. The fact that it is so controversial is even more telling. According to The Oregonian, the bill is currently stalled because it lacks the votes to pass the State Senate (the vote in the House was 33-27 and took place in April). The paper writes that “forty-seven lobbyists signed a letter to lawmakers urging them to vote against the bill.” That, apparently, has been more than enough pressure to keep it off the agenda of scared senators.
At times like these it is important to remember why denying Oregonians access to our courts is so deeply unfair. As a Portland consumer protection lawyer one of my most important jobs is to help Oregonians obtain the justice they deserve when companies concerned solely with the bottom line injure people through their marketing of unsafe products. How much worse is life for an injured person or her family when an insurance company then denies a legitimate claim, knowing that in doing so it enjoys immunity from any obligation to defend that decision in court, no matter how unfair it may be?
Our courts are one of the great leveling institutions of American life, a place where anyone can get justice regardless of the wealth or political power at their command. Courts cannot offer the justice we all deserve, however, when the law itself prevents them from doing so. Every Oregonian should support HB 3160 in the name of fairness, and justice.