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.