Marin Independent Journal (California)
Lawyer Ray Bourhis of Kentfield, who has built a national reputation jousting with insurance companies, has created a Web site he hopes will give him the clout to negotiate lower premium prices for consumers.
The site — www.InsuranceConsumers.com — was launched this month. It will rate top insurers according to how well they perform at claims time, as well as how readable their policies are, how many complaints and court judgments have been rendered against them, and what other consumers have to say about their service.
The site will provide advice for people buying insurance, insurance-related news, and referrals to advocates, appraisers and mediators, as well as provide a forum for sharing information with insurance buyers.
Bourhis says if enough people visit his site he will be able to coax insurance companies into offering them premium discounts. Corporations already negotiate discounts with insurers.
“The people who really have financial power are not the corporations,” Bourhis said. “It’s individuals who pay a trillion dollars a year in insurance premiums. They have never banded together before.”
Proposition 103, an insurance reform package voters approved in 1988, made it legal for insurers to offer group discounts, said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and the author of Prop. 103.
Nevertheless, “This is the first such endeavor of its kind,” Rosenfield said.
Access to all of the information on the site is free. Bourhis dropped an earlier plan to charge $9.95 per year to view some sections of it. But site visitors are encouraged to aide Bourhis in his fight against insurance companies by paying the same amount to become a member of Insurance Consumers.
Bourhis said the site will push for broader more uniform laws regulating insurance companies nationwide. He also hopes it will lead to a change in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which bars damages awards or attorney fees in cases where insurance is furnished by an employer.
Anyone who wants to view the site will be required to register at no charge as a basic member. Some of the site’s information will be available only to “Premier” members who pay $9.95 per year. Mediators and other professionals who are listed on the site might be asked to pay a fee, Bourhis said. He said the site will promote increased use of mediation as a way of avoiding more costly litigation.
“I believe in free enterprise and the profit motive. I don’t believe in just beating your breast and doing everything for free,” Bourhis said. “I try to find economic incentives for doing the right thing.”
Bourhis has had plenty of success with this approach in the past. He has won two seven-figure judgments against UnumProvident Corp. of Chattanooga, Tenn., and been interviewed on “60 Minutes” and other television news programs about insurance company practices.
In 2002, a San Francisco jury ordered UnumProvident to pay Joan Hangarter of Ignacio $7.6 million in damages and fees. Paul Revere Life Insurance Co., a subsidiary of UnumProvident, cut off benefits to Hangarter, who said she was unable to work due to an injured disk in her neck.
In 2001, Bourhis won a $1.3 million jury award in California’s Northern District federal court against Paul Revere Life. The verdict came after the UnumProvident subsidiary cut off disability benefits to Susan McGregor, a longtime San Francisco court reporter who said she could no longer work due a repetitive stress disorder.
Last fall, Bourhis and his legal partner, Lawrence Mann, sued seven Marin municipalities, the Marin Municipal Water District, the Tamalpais Union High School District, the Marin County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, the Ross Valley Sanitary District, and the state of California. The suit alleges the defendants failed to take appropriate action to prevent the devastating flooding that hit Marin on Dec. 31, 2005.
Bourhis and Mann are seeking $4 million in damages, and another $250,000 in legal fees, for each of the 265 individuals and businesses they are representing. That means they could collect more than $66 million in fees.
Is Bourhis concerned about the financial pressure the suit will put on these public agencies?
“No, I’m concerned about the people who were screwed by the public agencies,” Bourhis said. “How many times do you have to have a flood before they wake up?”
Mary Clark Guenther, a spokeswoman for UnumProvident, said, Bourhis has had Web sites in the past that he used to generate business.”
“I would just call into question whether or not what he’s going to be posting is going to be balanced and accurate information,” Guenther said, “because he is in the business of representing one side of the issue. I don’t know how he thinks he could negotiate rates.”
Guenther said the National Association of Insurance Commissioners currently supplies information on the number of complaints filed against insurance companies on its Web site: http://www.naic.org . For example, according to the NAIC site there were 69 complaints filed against Novato-based Fireman’s Fund Insurance Companies in 2006, down from 98 complaints in 2005.
Bourhis said his law firm maintains a Web site, and he set up a Web site to promote his book “Insult to Injury: Insurance Fraud and the Big Business of Bad Faith.” But Bourhis said he will not use InsuranceConsumers.com as a recruiting tool.
Bourhis, who is in his 60s, has been battling with insurers for years.
In 1988, he sued then-insurance Commissioner Roxani Gillespie for failing to prosecute a single insurance company after several years in office. In 1990, after Prop. 103 had mandated that California’s insurance commissioner be elected, Bourhis ran unsuccessfully for commissioner against John Garamendi.
In 1991, San Francisco Superior Court Judge John Dearman appointed Bourhis to serve as a special master overseeing California’s enforcement of the Unfair Claims Practices Act. In 1999, then-Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush requested a court order to dismiss Bourhis from his special master post after Bourhis issued a report slamming Quackenbush‘s performance in office. A San Francisco Superior Court judge rejected the order. A year later, Quackenbush resigned from office following a kickback scandal.
Rosenfield said he has nothing but praise for Bourhis.
“He is a longtime crusader as a trial attorney,” Rosenfield said. “He has been successful for himself on behalf of the people he represents, and he has served the public interest.”
Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at [email protected]