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Heat and Hostility

July 10, 1988

The only things new on television these hot summer nights are the commercials for the insurance initiatives on the Nov. 8 ballot. The 30-second vignettes are mildly diverting, if only because of the suspense over who will be depicted as the villain behind the escalating insurance premiums that most Californians pay, the insurance industry or the trial lawyers--it's always one or the other. Although the election is still four months away, the strategy behind the insurance wars is clear: The lawyers and the insurance companies have decided to capitalize on public hostility toward both.

There's certainly plenty of hostility to go around. Last month Mervin Field's California Poll found that 77% of California motorists say that they spend far too much on auto insurance; 45% blame insurance companies, and 36% hold lawyers responsible. The California Poll also asked voters how they would be swayed if they knew who was sponsoring an initiative; neither lawyers nor insurers appeared to have much credibility. Only 10% of the voters said that they would support an insurance-reform initiative sponsored by lawyers, and 13% said that they would back a measure initiated by insurers; by contrast, 79% would vote for an initiative sponsored by consumer groups.

That may be why it's far easier for TV viewers to tell what these commercials are against than what they're for or who's paying for them. The lawyers, in particular, have done their best to disguise themselves as a consumer group. The advertisements attacking no-fault insurance are sponsored by something called the Consumer Insurance Reform Coalition; that's actually the California Trial Lawyers Assn., Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and Consumers Union, the backers of Proposition 100. On the other side, brimming over with vitriol toward lawyers, are the commercials sponsored by Citizens for No Fault; that's the insurance industry, which put Propositions 104 and 106 on the ballot and at least has the decency to say in very small print, most of the time, that Citizens for No Fault is a committee of California insurers. Similarly, Proposition 101 purports to be the work of Consumers for Lower Insurance Rates; its prime backers are Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) and Harry Miller, head of Coastal Insurance Co.

Is it deceptive for organizations of lawyers or insurance companies to pose as consumer and citizen groups? Absolutely. Is it illegal? Probably, under both the state Political Reform Act and federal communications law, which require that the true sponsors of TV and radio commercials be fully identified. In fact, the insurers and Voter Revolt to Cut Insurance Rates, the Ralph Nader-affiliated group that backs Proposition 103 (the only initiative actually financed by consumers), have complained to the state Fair Political Practices Commission about the trial lawyers' deceptive commercials.

Proponents of Proposition 100, seizing on a loophole in the state law, contend that their support is broad-based and that their contributions come from all kinds of Californians, not just lawyers, so they need not cite their connection to the trial lawyers' group. But donations from the California Trial Lawyers Assn. and individual lawyers account for the bulk of the budget, and the association runs the campaign's daily operations; for this campaign to claim to be a consumer group is an act of pure chutzpah.

So far the FPPC has not acted on the complaint, citing a backlog of cases. Such procrastination is inexcusable, given the record amounts of money pumped into these campaigns (at least $23 million for the insurers alone, perhaps half that for the lawyers) and the importance of auto-insurance reform. Tuesday is the deadline for submission of copy for the ballot statement that will be mailed to voters this fall, and if the FPPC does not order the sponsors of these initiatives to identify themselves accurately, many California voters will be deprived of information that they need to make up their minds come November. Once this issue is out of the way, Californians can concentrate on the deeper problem foisted on them by the do-nothing Legislature--figuring out whether any of these initiatives will actually lower their insurance bills.

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