Dale to testify on tort reform
By By William F. West / community editor
July 15, 2002
Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale plans to testify this week before a state legislative committee studying possible changes to the civil justice system, commonly called tort reform.
Dale, who has been in office since 1976 and is the nation's longest-serving elected insurance commissioner, discussed tort reform with The Meridian Star editorial board last week.
The Meridian Star: What kind of role are you playing in discussions in the Legislature and with the governor's office about medical malpractice insurance?
George Dale: We're pretty well doing ours independently. It's not by design. That's just because we've haven't been asked.
Over a year ago, I made the governor aware that, in my opinion, there was going to be a problem on the issue of the legal climate. And his answer was, If insurance companies would pay claims, there would be no need for lawsuits.'
So, the discussion was discontinued for several months. But in the last meetings I've had with the governor, we have discussed some things that need to be done. The governor and I should let him speak for himself has told me that he does have some doctors and lawyers that are meeting in an effort to try to come up with some recommendations.
At the same time, the joint legislative committee studying tort reform is also meeting. They have heard a number of people testify, and I'm scheduled to testify on July 18.
My experience has been that plaintiffs have a tendency to blame insurance companies because they are a good target, because insurance companies are not completely innocent in the treatment of individuals.
Then they also bring in the regulator because there's no regulation of insurance. So the only way that justice can be gotten from an individual if they're not getting help from the regulator and the insurance companies are bad to people is through the courts. That's not completely untrue, but at the same time it's not as prevalent as some of them would have you believe.
So I'm sure there will be those, when I appear before the joint committee, that will want to take me as a regulator to task as to why I let this situation get as bad as it has, why don't I make insurance companies write in Mississippi.
The Star: How do you feel about your opinion not being sought by the legislative committee?
Dale: I intend to offer some of the information that's already been offered and pretty much just tell them the decisions first-hand that I have faced.
For instance, two weeks ago, I received a call from a lawyer friend on the coast that represents the Singing River Hospital and a number of the (gynecologists) in that hospital.
And he said, George, our insurer is considering non-renewing the hospital. They have a regional office in Birmingham. Would you meet us over there and help us beg for mercy, for them to continue writing?'
So I met them in Birmingham, met with this insurance company, and basically that insurance company said: Fifteen years ago, we started this company with 8 million borrowed dollars. We now have $440 million in capital surplus. We're a very big and good company, but we're not going to carry another truckload of money and leave it Mississippi. You all have a problem, when you get it corrected, then we'll be back. Thank you for your time.'
That's the message that I want to be able to deliver these folks and say: This is what I'm told full-time. This is what I'm told face-to-face, of what the situation is.'
Now, they can believe it or not believe it. What will it take to cause those kinds of people to say, Yes, we're going to come and do business in Mississippi,' I don't have that recommendation. I don't know.
The Star: Why have the governor and legislators not sought your point of view? Why are you not an integral part of this process?
Dale: I'm not a pushy person. They know where my office is. I have some information that could be of help to him. Why they have not sought my information, I can't answer that. I'm available to provide that information when called upon to do so.
The Star: Did you ask them?
Dale: Did not. Three different times that joint committee has said: If the commissioner of insurance comes over, maybe we'll hear from him.' I sent word back to Bobby (Moak, a state representative from Bogue Chitto) and everybody on that committee: I will come when asked. I'm not going to go over there and sit all day long to listen to the joint committee studying tort reform without being invited.
I have an office to run. I will come provide any information I can, but some of them took offense to the fact that I didn't sit over all day and listen to the testimony. I intend to go on the 18th because I have been invited. I intend to provide everything that I can, answer any questions they have, offer any suggestions I can based on the information available to me. They can do whatever they want to with it.
The Star: Does that make you feel like, Why am I over here doing my job if they aren't going to talk to me ahead of time?'
Dale: No, I'm used to being slighted. And I'm not troubled by it at all. Some people would be, but I'm not.