Advisen Conference: Claims Are Getting Bigger – and Nastier

nasty claims are on the rise.

Insurance claims are happening more often and they’re getting a lot more expensive – fast. The consequences are alarming. Premiums are rising for consumers and businesses. Coverage is getting scarce for some risks. Some insurers are increasingly concerned about how to keep liability insurance sustainable into the future.

But why are bigger claims happening more often? And what can the insurance industry do about it?

Advisen Ltd. held its inaugural “Big Nasty Claims Conference” on September 20 to explore these and other questions, featuring expert insight from across the insurance value chain: defense counsels, brokers, claims and insurance professionals, and risk managers.

Plaintiff’s attorney litigation strategies have evolved – and are paying off big

You’ve seen the headlines. $4.69 billion verdict for women alleging that talc baby powder caused ovarian cancer. $101 million verdict for a driver allegedly injured after his car was struck by a truck. The list could go on for what seems like forever.

And if it feels like these are unprecedented numbers happening at unprecedented rates, that’s because they are. There’s been a remarkable uptick in punitive damages from claims that went to trial, noted Jonathan Drummond, Head of Casualty – North America at Willis Towers Watson.

John Manning, keynote speaker at the conference and partner at Manning Gross & Massenburg LLP, made the case that some of this uptick is because of new plaintiff’s attorney litigation tactics. Using the so-called “reptile strategy” (based on this 2009 book), plaintiff’s attorneys have been successfully creating massive risks from what used to be fairly straightforward claims.

The reptile strategy involves appealing to what is known as the reptile brain — the part of the brain said to favor safety and survival over logic. What this often means in the courtroom is a subtle distortion of legal standards and burdens of proof. Manning argued that this allows plaintiff’s attorneys to essentially re-define “negligence” in the jurors’ minds to mean the failure of a company to be absolutely perfect and absolutely safe (a far cry from the actual legal standard).

Naturally, this standard of perfection is impossible to uphold. But the reptile strategy’s use of emotional appeal to waive away the need for actual causation can influence the jury to demand compliance with the impossible – and hence multi-million or billion-dollar verdicts against companies whose products might have posed only the slightest possible risk of danger, if at all.

This is particularly true in what Christopher Morrison, Senior Vice President at Swiss Re, called “high sympathy, high damages” claims with low liability – that is, claims where liability is pretty straightforward. He explained that these are the cases where the plaintiff’s attorneys are willing to take risks to move the needle away from traditional legal standards because, to win a big settlement, liability needs to be proven beyond the scope of the actual facts of the case.

The consequences of this strategy are impacting traditional legal standards themselves. Manning said that, in his view, the reptile strategy is “the number one factor in moving the line of demarcation of burden of proof for negligence and causation analysis.” “There’s a lot more ‘next asbestos’ if they [the plaintiffs’ bar] don’t have to prove medical causation at the trial,” he added, referencing the recent ruling regarding Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer.

Same old claims, new massive losses

These massive verdicts coming out of claims litigation are having a trickle-down effect. Claims settlement costs are also increasing, absent any trial – because huge verdicts mean a new “floor” for what a plaintiff’s attorney will demand in settlements. As Mia Finsness, Managing Director of Casualty Claims at Markel Corporation, noted, “one runaway verdict can drive the whole discussion on what settlements look like – you get massive settlements before you get to trial because plaintiff’s attorneys will just say they want huge money and that sets a floor.”

“Loss costs in casualty have always been increasing,” said Andy Barberis, Executive Vice President of Commercial Claims at AIG, “but over the last five to 10 years the increase has been exponential.” There doesn’t seem to exist a cap on where loss costs could end, he added, and these recent trends are of significant concern for the future sustainability of the insurance industry.

And not all verdicts need to be massive to have an effect. It was a running theme throughout the panels that claims that once cost $1 or $2 million to settle are now going for much more. “Things that used to be routine, we’re seeing a doubling or quadrupling of the verdicts,” said Kevin A. Maloney, Senior Vice President at Allied World. Over time, these individual increases can add up to big losses.

One panel was asked if “litigation financing” might have something to do with increasingly aggressive claims settlement on the part of the plaintiffs’ bar. (Litigation financing is when third-parties fund a plaintiff’s lawsuit in exchange for a portion of a settlement.) The short answer: a lack of transparency about when litigation is being financed by outside parties makes it hard to know if this is a widespread phenomenon. “Transparency is a real issue regarding funding. It’s hard to know they [financiers] even exist because right now there are few requirements for disclosure,” Finsness said.

Several lawyers said they had only incidentally found out third-parties were funding litigation, such as when a plaintiff’s attorney was very aggressively pursuing a high settlement and admitted to being funded.

Tort reform is unlikely, so strong legal defenses are crucial

Could tort reform help rein in aggressive litigation and massive verdicts? The mood at the conference was that the prospect for enactment of any meaningful tort reform is becoming an ever more unrealizable reality.

Instead, strong legal defenses that recognize and counter reptile strategies and other plaintiff’s attorney tactics are crucial.

For one, the conference experts stressed unity among parties to a defense; that is, making sure everyone is on the same page to preclude a plaintiff’s attorney from “driving a wedge” between the defense. Communicate “early and often” was also stressed– insureds, brokers, risk managers, and counsel need to share information and coordinate defense strategy as early as possible.

In other words, be more strategic. Plaintiff’s counsel on the other side of the fence, observed William Passannante, an attorney with Anderson Kill P.C., “will pool resources and share information and contact each other to form a united front,” especially when there’s potential for a big settlement. “I don’t know if I see the same willingness among defense counsels,” he added.

Finsness agreed, arguing that effective defense counsel and coordinated strategy are crucial components of satisfactory claim settlement.

Emerging risks might completely change the litigation landscape

Panel members were asked what they think could be the “next asbestos” to hit the insurance industry:

  • Talc-related litigation – the potential population of plaintiffs dwarfs that of the asbestos population.
  • The opioid crisis continues to increase litigation and claims exposure for many books of business.
  • Concussion litigation, especially with the increased attention on long-term brain injuries suffered by football players.
  • Climate change litigation, particularly the recent cases seeking to hold individual companies liable for alleged climate change-related damages.
  • Exposure “leakage,” in which old issues crop up in new contexts. Finsness noted that PFOA (chemicals used in a number of products) contamination could potentially become a product liability issue.
  • Premises security. Will venues become liable for shootings or other acts of violence on their premises?

The upshot being: claims are happening more often, are getting more expensive – and may be cropping up for new exposures that could haunt the insurance industry for decades to come.

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