In 2011, the Legislature passed a law banning uninsured drivers from collecting so-called “pain and suffering” damages if they’re in an accident. The law did allow those drivers to recover actual damages, such as property damage, medical costs and lost income. In short, an uninsured driver who gets T-boned at an intersection will be paid to replace his car, compensated for any resulting hospital bills, and made whole for time away from his job.
But he couldn’t sue the other driver for nebulous “pain and suffering” claims that don’t fall under any of those categories, yet can be the largest part of some claims.
The law’s logic is simple: If you don’t obey state law by having car insurance, you shouldn’t get to collect a jackpot from a responsible, law-abiding driver if you’re in an accident.
Tulsa attorney Joe Norwood challenged the law on behalf of a client, Rachel Montgomery, who was in an accident while driving without insurance. Montgomery said she thought someone else was paying for her insurance and didn’t realize she wasn’t covered. We doubt many Oklahomans sympathize with that excuse. Even so, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down the law.
We don’t criticize Norwood for taking the case; even irresponsible people deserve representation. But his rationale for opposing the uninsured-driver law tortures logic. According to the Tulsa World, Norwood said the Legislature only passed the law “to help insurance companies,” which he claimed are the “only group which would have received any benefit out of this.”
Really? Does Norwood understand where insurance companies get their money?
For years, Oklahoma has had one of the highest rates of uninsured drivers in the country. It’s estimated more than 500,000 uninsured vehicles remain on state roads. When those drivers get into accidents, the other driver’s insurance company pays all damages. Unlike Norwood’s client, those innocent victims are ultimately footing the bill for their own medical and property losses in an accident they didn’t cause — never mind “pain and suffering.”
The high rate of uninsured drivers in Oklahoma means that citizens who do obey the law pay substantially higher premiums. Norwood wants to pretend he’s gouging greedy insurance companies with this legal victory; in reality, he’s indirectly raking over the coals every Oklahoman who obeys auto insurance laws.
The court’s justification for striking down the law will likely puzzle many Oklahomans. In a nutshell, the justices ruled the statute was an impermissible special law because it treated accident victims differently based on whether they obeyed insurance laws or not. From a layman’s perspective, it’s hard to see how that’s a problem. Aren’t people who break the law supposed to be treated differently than those who obey it?
Nonetheless, this decision is a blow to efforts to crack down on uninsured drivers in Oklahoma, and a monetary win for those who put others at risk every time they roll out of the driveway. That’s no cause for celebration, nor is it a victory for the hardworking “little man,” no matter how much some may pretend otherwise.