California Supreme Court is on the front lines of tort war 

One of California’s longest-running political battles pits personal-injury lawyers against insurance companies and their business clients over rules governing who can sue and collect for what kind of injurious act.

The rivals have spent countless hundreds of millions of dollars on campaign contributions, lobbying fees, public relations operatives and other political weaponry, but that’s chicken feed compared to the multibillion-dollar stakes.

Milestones in what insiders call a “tort war” include then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature on a 1975 law that limits pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice cases; a huge ballot war over auto insurance in 1988; a successful insurer-backed referendum to repeal a lawyer-sponsored “bad-faith” law in 2000; and still another ballot battle in 2004 that curbed unfair business practice suits against small business.

But the war is also fought in the courts because judges can be just as powerful as legislators, governors and voters in setting tort parameters.

That brings us to Howell v. Hamilton Meats & Provisions, a case now awaiting a state Supreme Court decree that could have multibillion-dollar results.

The courtroom was packed when the precedent-setting case was argued in May. Ever since, legal analysts have been speculating — based on the comments of the justices hearing the case — about which way it would go.

The issue is whether someone who suffers injuries in an auto collision or other incident is entitled to collect the full amount of the medical bills issued by doctors, hospitals and other care providers, or is limited to the amount actually paid by insurers for that treatment — often a fraction of the supposed bill.

The case stems from a 2005 San Diego County collision in which a Hamilton Meat truck seriously injured Rebecca Howell.

Howell’s medical bills approached $200,000, but medical insurance settled with the care providers for $60,000 and the trial judge reduced the medical part of her judgment to that amount.

An appellate court restored the full amount, and whatever happens in Howell’s case will also settle several other cases hinging on the same issue.

How big is the Howell case? The insurance industry has declared that requiring compensation for full medical bills, rather than negotiated payoffs, could cost them a whopping $3 billion a year and generally, plaintiffs’ lawyers would receive one-third of that amount.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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