Arlington man jumps into ad war over insurance referendum

OLYMPIA — Rob Dietz once earned a living by selling insurance policies.

Now the Arlington man is on television arguing for that industry’s reform.

Dietz is featured in commercials for the campaign to approve Referendum 67, which would ratify a law giving policyholders’ more legal clout and a potential tripling of damages if their insurer unreasonably denies their claim.

In the 30-second spot, Dietz says he quit the business when companies’ began pushing up profits by delaying and denying legitimate claims.

“It’s very satisfying and rewarding to think that I am contributing to the greater good of society,” he said this week. “When you have a passion and belief in something, then it’s ­really easy to get involved and get active.”

Not surprisingly, those urging voters to reject R-67 contend money, more than altruism, is driving Dietz. He now works as an expert witness hired by lawyers of those seeking to prove they’ve been wronged by their insurer.

“It’s an interesting ad, but what would voters think if they knew he made his living from trial lawyers?” said Dana Childers, spokeswoman for the Reject R-67 campaign. “How does he have any sort of credibility in this case?”

Questions of motive and credibility abound in this multimillion-dollar election clash of two of the state’s political titans — insurers and trial lawyers.

And the fight is being played out on television screens across the state.

Insurers created a commercial with the fictitious law firm of “Sooem, Settle and Kashin” that questioned the aim of trial lawyers in pushing the measure.

More recently, trial lawyers put the daughter of a deceased firefighter in an ad where she said her dad didn’t receive needed treatment because an insurer wouldn’t pay. That allegation drew a rebuttal ad from the opponents of the referendum.

With the airing of ads increasing, voters are considering whose side they’re on.

At stake is the fate of Senate Bill 5726 passed in April on a party-line vote in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed it, but it is on hold pending the outcome of the Nov. 6 ballot battle.

Today, consumers can sue if they think their claim has been unfairly denied. If they win, they might get the amount owed but are not entitled to punitive damages.

Approving Referendum 67 will enact SB 5726 and give consumers more power, supporters said.

They will be able to go to court against an insurer for “unreasonably” denying a claim for coverage or payment. A victorious policyholder could recover up to triple the actual damages plus reasonable attorney and litigation costs.

The new law, if enacted, would apply to policies such as auto, home and life but does not cover health insurance. It does cover medical claims under an auto insurance policy.

Opponents in the insurance industry argue it is not needed because the opportunity to sue already exists. Passing R-67 will simply lead to more lawsuits and higher costs for insurance, they said.

Insurance firms have provided the financial muscle to get rid of the law — from gathering signatures for the referendum to conducting an all-out airwave assault. As of Tuesday, the campaign to Reject R-67 had raised $10.5 million and spent $9.1 million.

Backers of the law, like Dietz, contend it is needed to deal with the bad apples of the industry that don’t provide prompt and fair service. Firms that don’t act unreasonably have nothing to fear from its enactment, they said.

Labor unions and the AARP are among endorsers of Approve R-67 but trial lawyers are the financial force of the campaign that’s raised $2.2 million and spent $1.5 million of it as of Tuesday.

Television is where both sides are spending most to spread their messages and debunk that of their opponent.

Last month, insurers fired an initial salvo with the “Sooem, Settle and Kashin” commercial debating ways to exploit the law.

Things turned much more personal and controversial with commercials dealing with the death of a firefighter for the city of Puyallup.

In the ad produced by Approve 67, the firefighter’s daughter says that her father could have been treated and kept alive but the insurers did not pay for his needed care.

Opponents called the ad a “lie” and tried to convince television stations to stop running it. When that failed, the campaign responded with its own ad in saying the firefighters’ city-paid benefits paid for doctor-approved care.

Thus far, Dietz’s story has not spawned a televised counterpunch.

“I don’t suspect we’ll make a TV ad,” said Childers of Reject R-67. “We’re not going to chase our tail and respond to every one of their deceitful and misleading ads.”

Dietz said there’s nothing to attack.

“I earn a living telling the truth. I am not going to go out on a limb or stretch the truth in any way for the Approve 67 group,” he said.

Dietz worked 14 years in claims handling and claims supervision for Farmers Insurance.

It was a career in which he said he helped a lot of people and did a few things to increase the company profit at the consumer’s expense.

“I did some things that I look back on and I’m not proud of,” he said, adding some of them might have been grounds for legal challenge under R-67.

He said he’s haunted by a case in 1987 in which he negotiated a small settlement with a woman injured in a crash involving an uninsured motorist. When he walked out of the conference room where the deal was made, he was “high-fived” by colleagues.

“I was paying her for her pain and suffering. I paid her a fraction of what I should have paid her. It was not fair. I regret that,” he said.

He left in 2001. The next year, Farmers sued him because he spoke out about the company’s use of a computer program to set schedules for claim payouts that, Dietz argued, improved the company’s profits at the expense of policyholders.

The suit was later tossed out. Word spread of his fight and his career as an expert witness blossomed. He said in five years he’s testified in more than 100 cases in several states.

Childers said one of them involved the King County dentist who placed boar tusks in the mouth of a patient under anesthesia and photographed her. The patient sued the dentist and got $250,000.

The dentist sued his insurer for not defending him in court under terms of his policy and he won $750,000. Dietz testified during the initial jury trial in which the insurer lost. Appeals pushed the case to the state Supreme Court, which upheld the doctor’s award.

Childers said under R-67, the dentist might have pocketed three times as much.

“You make sure people know (Dietz) was involved in the case. That was absolutely outrageous and a guy like Dietz thinks it is a good case,” she said.

Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, a backer of the measure, said he worries the ads and incendiary comments will turn off voters.

“I can look at both sides and just shake my head,” he said.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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