MADD shocks activists with insurer alliance

Published on

San Diego Union Tribune

SACRAMENTO — Advocates of two propositions intended to boost the clout of accident victims in dealing with recalcitrant insurance companies fully expected the support of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

They were wrong.

Instead, the California chapter of MADD has joined with some of the largest insurance companies to oppose Propositions 30 and 31, which all sides agree would allow victims — including those injured by drunken drivers — to sue insurance companies that fail to make timely settlements or pressure victims to accept low-ball payments.

Those suits are now blocked by state court rulings.

The propositions had been passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in response to complaints from victims and lobbying by attorneys and consumer advocates. But instead of heading for the state law, a petition campaign forced a referendum on the measures. That referendum is set for the March ballot.

The opposition from MADD also has proposition advocates questioning whether the pioneering anti-drunken driving group is under pressure from the insurance industry, which provides millions of dollars annually to the organization’s national headquarters.

MADD agrees that accident victims have been shortchanged. However, officials say their organization opposes the measures because under certain circumstances a drunken driver or the heir of a drunken driver could bring damage suits against insurers.

But Rebecca Bearden, chairwoman of California MADD’s public policy committee, says the measures would allow those charged with drunken driving but who plea bargain to lesser charges — including so-called “wet reckless” driving — to file suits of their own against insurers.

Bearden said that heirs of drunken drivers killed in their accidents also could bring suits.

“We do not want drunk drivers to receive any financial reward as a result of committing their crimes,” Bearden said.

Bearden expressed disappointment that MADD was not consulted earlier by sponsors and supporters of the legislation, which includes Consumer Attorneys of California, Consumers Union and the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

But supporters of the measures say they open no new loopholes and that the scenarios cited by MADD are far-fetched.

“MADD asked us to exclude drunk drivers from being able to sue under this law and we did that,” said Sharon Arkin, a Newport Beach attorney who participated in crafting the legislative language. “We did exactly what they wanted us to do — and then they said that’s not good enough.”

Doug Heller, a consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, said a study by his group found state accident victims receive 29 percent less for claims than those in other states.

“They have low-balled people because they are not accountable,” said Heller, noting the current legal bar on suing insurers.

Heller said MADD’s opposition to the propositions contradicts its national policy guidelines, which pledges support for drunken driving accident victims.

“The fact that their opposition could hurt the victims of drunk driving is what makes this astonishing,” Heller said.

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