The Center for Justice and Democracy

Senator Lott Learns The Importance of Suing

By Laurie Gindin Beacham, Communications Director & Joanne Doroshow, Executive Director, of the Center for Justice & Democracy

Sometimes an issue doesn’t hit home until one’s home is hit. That appears to be the case for new Republican Senate Whip Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.). The Senator’s Mississippi beachfront home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina last year, and he’s been fighting with State Farm, his home insurance company, ever since. State Farm has refused to pay for damage to Lott’s house, so Lott has joined legions of other Katrina victims who are in the same boat. He has sued his insurance company.

The fact that devastated Katrina victims have been forced to go to court against their insurance carriers may be surprising enough for many Americans. But the fact that their ranks have been joined by a conservative U.S. Senator, former Republican Senate leader and new Whip, and an outspoken critic of those who file lawsuits, is somewhat mind-boggling. Lott used to say derogatory things about those who go to court, like, “The Democrats seem to think that the answer is a lawsuit. Sue everybody…,” “It’s sue, sue, sue … That’s not the answer,” and “I’m among many Mississippi citizens who believe tort reform is needed.”

But he has a different focus now. Now, Senator Lott has not only filed his own suit but also talks about “insensitivity and outright meanness” of insurers, saying, “They have abused my people, my friends, the people I love.”

U.S. Senator Trent Lott, it seems, may have seen the light.

And indeed, he is not paying lip service. Lott recently inserted a provision into legislation directing a fraud investigation of the insurance industry by the Department of Homeland Security. He is also reported to be planning the introduction of legislation forcing insurers to be more clear in their policies about what is covered, and to be drafting legislation to overturn the insurance industry’s exemption from antitrust laws. This extraordinary exemption, passed in 1945, gives the insurance industry a unique privilege shared only by Major League Baseball. It allows insurers to price-fix, reducing competition and putting the consumer at a great disadvantage. Nearly every year, bills are introduced to do away with the exemption. So far, these efforts have gone nowhere, intensely fought by the insurance industry. Maybe now with a new more consumer-friendly Congress and Senator Lott’s backing, it will have a better chance.

Hopefully, this experience has also reminded Senator Lott of the job that most trial lawyers in this country do: they spend their days fighting insurance companies on behalf of average citizens. They do this because insurers routinely refuse to settle legitimate claims, or sometimes to even deal with injured people and their lawyers, forcing them into court. Unfortunately, special interest business organizations have invested many millions of dollars not only to elect politicians but also to pollute jurors and the public, convincing them that most of these lawsuits are frivolous. They’re not. Nor has statistical evidence ever supported such a notion, most recently confirmed by the Harvard School of Public Health.

Most people do not realize the importance of the right to a trial by jury until something hits them personally. It is unclear which way the Senator’s case will go – that’s what courts are for. But imagine if he lost the right to pursue his case at all. Ironically, the kinds of laws that Senator Lott has historically supported, so-called “tort reform,” certainly may have weakened this right. Such laws often do little more than present insurmountable obstacles to get to court for those with legitimate claims. Senator Lott’s situation should be a reminder to us all that insurance companies who abuse their policyholders must be held accountable, and that open access to courts is the best means to do that.

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Posted at 11:00 AM, Dec 04, 2006 in
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I always assumed that insurers and other big companies gave special treatment to people like Senators and Presidents. Glad to know I was wrong.

With a Democratic majority and a few Republicans joining them, maybe the insurance industry will finally see the scrutiny and reform it needs...

Posted by: Justinian Lane | December 4, 2006 12:12 PM

Yes, it's fascinating to see the "Center for Justice & Democracy" applaud a senator abusing his powers because he didn't get special treatment.

Imagine if Karl Rove announced that the New York Times owed him $500,000 and his brother-in-law millions, and he didn't care whether he had a legal right to that money, but that if they didn't pay him, he'd engage the full power of the government to investigate them. You think CJD would applaud? Where's the outrage? For a website that cares so much about hypocrisy, it's awfully hypocritical itself.

Posted by: Ted | December 7, 2006 1:59 AM

The story of Trent Lott reminds me of the Frank Cornelius story -- an individual that lobbied for caps on damages before finding himself in a wheelchair due to multiple acts of negligence. I've added to your post with one of my own on Cornelius at The New York Personal Injury Blog

(And thanks to Justinian for the link to this joint)


Posted by: Eric Turkewitz | December 7, 2006 10:14 AM

"Imagine if Karl Rove announced that the New York Times owed him $500,000 and his brother-in-law millions, and he didn't care whether he had a legal right to that money, but that if they didn't pay him, he'd engage the full power of the government to investigate them."

Your hypothetical is inapposite.

Trent Lott announced he's suing because he claims he has a legal right to the money. Certainly, if a Senator believes a company (or an entire industry) is corrupt and harming his or her constituents, that Senator has a duty to launch an investigation.

I have read neither Lott's lawsuit nor his insurance policy, so I can't tell whether his lawsuit has merit. Hypothetically speaking, if State Farm is breaching its duty to Lott, shouldn't he file a lawsuit? Or is it the investigation of the insurance industry you oppose?

Posted by: Justinian Lane | December 8, 2006 5:33 PM

Fine: change the hypothetical. Rove signs a contract with the New York Times where they agree to pay him $250,000 for his memoirs, and then he announces that he thinks the contract is unfair and his memoirs are really worth one million dollars, and that the Times should also pay his brother-in-law several million dollars for all of its other authors under the same legal theory, and that he'll use the government to investigate the Times if they don't give him what he wants. Same difference.

Lott's claim is entirely frivolous, and everyone who knows anything about insurance finds it (and his arguments) utterly laughable.

Posted by: Ted | December 8, 2006 9:14 PM