Dec. 26, 2005 — The Commissioner of Banking and Insurance says he supports a decision by Gov. Charles Turnbull to maintain a liability cap on certain losses related to vehicular accidents.
In a recent interview, Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards, who by virtue of his position heads the Division of Banking and Insurance in the Virgin Islands, said he asked the governor to veto a measure by the 26th Legislature that would have rescinded a $75,000 cap on non-economic damages suffered as a result of an auto accident. Those remarks led a lawyer who is leading a political fight to have the cap eliminated to criticize the lieutenant governor and challenge his rationale for why the measure is necessary.
Richards said recently that the cap was needed because excessive jury awards to car crash victims in the territory left the insurance industry reluctant to offer auto insurance here.
"My position is in support of the governor's veto. In fact I recommended such," Richards said. "In 1999 we had no insurance in the territory, in large part because of the juries awarding million-dollar awards that scared the insurance industry away. At the time I think it was Senator Roosevelt David that brought this legislation. We had struggled since 1985 to put in place insurance for automobile issues. In 1999, we were able to pass this legislation and insurance companies supported it because there was a cap that started at $75,000."
Now he says the cap should be raised to "something more realistic," because $75,000 doesn't go as far as it used to when the liability cap was first made part of the V.I. Code.
A majority of lawmakers voted to rescind the cap during a full Senate session held in December. St. Thomas attorney Robert King lobbied them, saying the Virgin Islands is last in the U.S. when it comes to paying the victims of auto accidents for non-economic damages. King said he has already filed challenges in local and federal court over the liability cap.
On Monday, King said Richards is "disingenuous" for suggesting that the $75,000 cap eased the fears of the insurance industry and encouraged them to do business in the territory. He also said he had no criticism for the chief executive, who vetoed the measure last Thursday.
"If the governor doesn't feel that he needs to support a piece of legislation, of course that's his option," King said. "I have nothing to say about the governor's veto. However I don't think that veto serves the people of the Virgin Islands and I think the people of the Virgin Islands lost a battle," he said. "But we didn't lose the war."
King also challenged Richard's suggestion about the number of million-dollar verdicts ever awarded for injuries suffered in car accidents.
"I would want him to show me what facts that he relies on because the kind of verdicts he's talking about simply don't exist," said King. "If, for instance, a jury awarded a million-dollar verdict, then a million dollar verdict was, more likely than not, justified. If it wasn't justified the courts have a number of methods they can use to rectify that situation."
Now the attorney says he's making personal appeals to average citizens to phone their lawmakers and lobby for an override. There are ten lawmakers who voted to do away with the liability cap, King said, so an override is possible. He also says he has appealed to other local attorneys to show their support for eliminating the cap. So far, he said, at least a half of dozen of them have agreed to do so.
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