NYT Obituaries Are a Time-Suck

Stay clear, whatever you do. While searching for Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima’s obit, I ran into this one today, “Jeffrey O’Connell, Legal Scholar of No-Fault Coverage, Dies at 84“:

In 1965 Mr. O’Connell joined with Robert E. Keeton, another law professor, to write “Basic Protection for the Traffic Victim: A Blueprint for Reforming Automobile Insurance,” a book in which they proposed to do away with a system in which an accident victim had to sue another driver to collect damages, in most cases from the second driver’s insurer.

The authors proposed that the victim’s own insurance company would pay the damages instead, regardless of who was at fault. The other driver would recover damages from his own insurance company.

Except for cases of extreme loss, in which lawsuits would be permitted, suits to get greater sums would be prohibited, depriving personal-injury lawyers of a ready supply of clients.

As a result, the authors contended, everyone could be quickly compensated, and administrative costs, particularly legal ones, would be curbed. Logically, insurance payouts would drop, meaning car owners’ premiums could be reduced.

Everyone who’s taken the New York bar knows about the no-fault system, which at least was simpler to understand than the elective share statute. If I recall, accident victims can only sue other drivers if their injuries are over $50,000 and they are “catastrophic” in character, or something like that.

Does the system work? Legendary scamblogger L4L of Big Debt, Small Law says “No.”

Okay, he didn’t just say no, he wrote a delightfully satirical post in March of 2010 on the subject that I will reprint. I cannot vouch for the veracity of any of L4L’s claims, but his point that no-fault can be easily defrauded is plausible.

If anything, the insurance defense sweatshops were latecomers to outsourcing’s bandwagon. We speak from experience here, having launched our legal “career” from a $40 K a year downtown no-fault mill (no kids, that number’s not missing a digit) back in 2006. Sweet Jesus, the memories. King’s Civil Court, 141 Livingston Street, Brooklyn. The infamous 9th floor “no-fault” part.

How fondly we recall the motions being wheeled into chambers via a rusted Pathmark shopping cart, its wheels buckling under the weight of so much legal toilet paper. John, the grouchy but loveable court clerk, had Stage IV throat cancer and would hack blood while rasping at us losers to “shut the Fuck up and listen for your case” during calendar call.

He wasn’t kidding. John kept a .38 special, sans holster, tucked in the waistband of his trousers. Sometimes he’d hammer a stapler inside a steel wastebasket to get the attention of us barristers when the din of no-fault bickering crossed a certain decibel level. Hell, even a chainsaw operator would cringe at how loud that place could get. We still awake at night with ears ringing, recalling the nightmare of $347 neck-brace negotiations. Those old “dollar collars.”

That said, John was one of the few good guys you’ll meet in the miserable sewer of ShitLaw practice. He realized full well what a pathetic waste of time the entire charade was, and how poorly paid we were paid to boot. Your humble narrator’s constant complaining once led him to announce: “if you monkeys ever form a union, you’ve found your shop steward.” They just don’t make ‘em like John anymore. Blue-collar Brooklyn all the way. A Mets fan. God bless the old bastard. Cancer long since carried him away to that big courtroom in the sky.

For those unfamiliar with no-fault practice, a brief primer: It’s the legal equivalent of stamping license plates in a prison metalshop, only at lower wages and more authoritarian working conditions. In NY State, a driver’s own insurance company pays medical expenses and lost wages regardless of accident fault. This moronic idea, hatched by “policy” wonks in the NY legislature, naturally resulted in systemic and wholesale disaster. To wit:

Mobsters get two junkyard cars, register & insure them, and then recruit homeless dudes and illegal immigrants to stage minor accidents. The police are summoned, an accident report prepared, and the scammers then begin “treating” at bogus outer-borough medical mills operated by the crime syndicate. The insurance carrier is then billed for the phony “treatments” plus a truckload of phantom medical supplies like canes, neck braces, massage units, and so on. NY even allows billing for quack “medicine” like aromatherapy, acupuncture and other witch-doctor nonsense.

Like the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels, these parasites teamed up to hamstring the insurance carriers. Remember kids: a cloud of mosquitoes tops a tiger’s death toll any day. The rules & caselaw all favor this infectious swamp of scammers, and billions have been stolen from NY drivers as a result of this ongoing heist. Shady collections law firms “buy” collections files from the clinics at 50 cents on the dollar, file Summary Judgment motions, and then just wait for the case to come up on calendar. For every victory, the medical mill gets an additional cash kickback. The byzantine rules and massive deluge of cases (150+ a day in Brooklyn alone) make it death by a thousand cuts for the carriers, who simply raise rates rather than pay a living wage for the cases to be properly litigated.

That doesn’t stop the occasional IDH (Insurance Defense Hero) from slipping thru now and then. All veterans of ShitLaw know the type. These barristers make up for their abysmal salaries in bare-knuckle belligerence and “fighting the good fight.” Unlike the usual hung-over, half-asleep J.C. Penney clad schlubs of ShitLaw, the IDH struts into court like Clint Eastwood entering a saloon. For their 40 K a year they’d take a bullet for Geico or Allstate, and take it with pride. Every case is like “High Noon.” One almost expects an IDH to come flying into depositions wearing tights and a Superman cape. We’ve often thought of pitching this character as an action-hero cartoon. Just imagine:

“Slower on the LSAT than a lobotomy victim, more powerless than a day-old fart, able to cut n’ paste huge motions with a single click- what’s that flying into court?

It’s a BIRD-it’s a PLANE- no, it’s the INSURANCE DEFENDER !”

Hell, we’d watch it. So would you.

Today it’s not uncommon for no-fault associates (or what’s left of them) to earn as little as 25 K a year,with turnover measured in hours opposed to months. After just 6 weeks at my first no-fault gig, I’d already risen 7 seniority notches on the letterhead. But wait: this “firm” gets even funnier:

Too stingy to buy motion-exhibit tabs, they’d instead have us cannibalize incoming papers for their office-supply content.

“Just pry apart the Velotex binding and yank the fuckers out”, said the partner. He even had a custom-bent screwdriver designed just for that purpose. We associates swapped these exhibit tabs like inmates trade smokes. An “Exhibit A” and other high-alphabet letters were always in short supply, whereas a “Q” was common as cabbage. Whenever someone quit we’d quickly plunder his desk to “stock up” on these much-needed supplies. One nasty, rodent-like guy who’d lasted 10 months had a real motherlode: eight “A’s” and eleven “B’s” stashed in his drawer. Or should I say “under his drawer.” Well hidden-the prick. For what motion he was saving them I have no idea. We called him “the squirrel.”

This dump also printed us our own cheesy business cards on that perforated cardstock you can buy at Staples. For laughs I’d bring the whole sheet into court and just rip them off as needed, like a dispenser. Once I gave this hot Wilson Elser chick a whole uncut page of them, but she never called me.

Sadly, my once-rising star was an elevator to nowhere. Insurance defense work is so boilerplate and mindless that many firms “dump” experienced associates once a certain salary threshold is reached (roughly 60-65 K). Five year’s experience isn’t worth much more than five minutes, and it’s simply more cost effective to “keep the line moving” with freshly minted suckers from Car’Bozo, Brooklyn, NYLS and other gutter schools than pay experienced associates a living wage. Now that Bangalore &Co. are handling all the paper-churning, these insurance “firms” can simply troll craigslist for per-diem clowns to show up in court and bicker over the cases for as little as $25 a file. Like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, these migrant barristers wander the court system like fruit pickers.

The work was beyond mindless. Like the A-Team, if you’ve seen one episode, you’ve seen ‘em all. The characters changed while the script stayed the same. Day after day, year after year, squads of TTT grads trekked off to court, got yelled at/berated by court personnel, and limped back to the office to cut n’ paste the next day’s sad mountain of paperwork together. “Lateral” options from this practice area included can & bottle scrounging, panhandling on the 7 train, or becoming assistant fry cook at Burger King.

You can read the rest here (17-20).

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