I called to wish an old friend Happy Birthday and discovered it was more of a Get Well Soon call instead. Unbeknownst to me, he had been walking his bike across the street in Hollywood (he rides it down Lexington but then walks it across Highland, a busy intersection), when he was hit by a Honda.
In California, pedestrians have the right of way. The first car stopped; the second didn’t.
Lying in the street with a badly smashed left leg, David recalls, five different people were thrusting cell phones at him, in case there were people he needed to call. Very LA, he says. Very Nineties.
“I hope you have insurance,” David said amicably to the 34-year-old who’d hit him. (My friend is a highly amicable type, and he was, in any event, in shock.) But — surprise, surprise — the driver didn’t have insurance and neither did his sister, who owned the old car. (In California, premiums are so high that at least 5 million vehicles, perhaps as many as 7 million, are driven uninsured.)
Off the ambulance sped to Cedars Sinai, where after ten days and a bout of pneumonia, David was released with a prescription for painkillers and two metal rods in his leg. He’ll be fine, basically, and his Writers Guild group health policy is expected to pay 60% or 80% of the $50,000 or so in hospital costs. So the accident will only leave David $10,000 or $20,000 out of pocket, plus the cost of whatever income he might have lost from being out of commission. (It’s hard to write on painkillers — or at least hard to write coherently.)
For 40%, a lawyer has agreed to see if there’s any money to be gotten from the driver or the sister, who owned the car, but it’s unlikely. If $10,000 can somehow be squeezed from the sister, it will be a devastating financial blow to her young family. The lawyer will be $4,000 richer. And David will have $6,000 toward his costs. A lousy result for David; a lousy result for the sister (and her kids); a fine result for the lawyer.
Under Prop 200, which would have lowered auto insurance premiums (but which the voters defeated a year ago this month, because the lawyers advertised that it would have raised rates 40%), David would have had all his medical and rehab costs paid for, would have been reimbursed for his lost income, or at least a good portion thereof, and would have gotten a modest payment for his — very real — pain and suffering. Probably on the order of $10,000 or $25,000. (The exact amount would have been determined by a schedule set by the insurance commissioner ranging up to $250,000 for really catastrophic injuries. All pedestrians/skateboarders/bicyclers/etc. would have been covered for pain and suffering no matter what. For motorists, it would have been an inexpensive option.) The driver, meanwhile, would have faced as much “punishment” as today — a possible fine, if he was found to have been operating his vehicle recklessly, just as today; a hike in his auto insurance premiums (which today is meaningless, because he’s one of the millions who doesn’t buy it in the first place, but which under Prop 200 would have had an effect); and, of course, the rotten feeling of knowing he had hurt someone else — which you may pooh-pooh, but which I think an awful lot of people, though not all, would indeed feel.
No lawyers would have been required, no juries impaneled, no long delays. (Had there been long delays, the insurance company assigned his case would have been subject to a 2% a month penalty and, ultimately, a lawsuit for bad faith. Which is why, acting in its own selfish best interest, the insurer would have tried hard to avoid delays.)
The downside: there would have been no chance for a multi-million dollar jackpot, as there is today, in case the driver had been, say, Michael Ovitz (he of the $93 million Disney severance agreement). But here’s a newsflash: the proportion of accident-causers in California who are Ovitz-like, or even just heavily insured, is minuscule.
One solution would be to pass a law that only rich or heavily insured drivers can cause accidents. A more practical solution — certainly for my friend — would have been Prop 200.
Tomorrow: An Ironic Postscript
Quote of the Day
In 1800, 75% of [an American's] working man's expenditures went for food alone. By 1850, that had dropped to 50%. Today it is a little more than 11%.~The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 1996
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