Writing insurance humor is a fine art. It's insurance school for four years, and then comedy school for 30 more, before you're any good at it. The underlying problem is that insurance is dull, and humor is funny. So the Insurance Humorists' Local 108 asked me to convey a special round of thanks to buyers of policies issued by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., containing an exclusion on employees damaging other employees. That is insurance, and it's hilarious.
In November, the Maryland Court of Appeals upheld an exclusion in a commercial automobile policy for injuries to one employee caused by another. As long as the policy provided the statutory minimum coverage, it was acceptable, the court held. The coverage did not need to be reasonable.
For those against the decision, James K. MacAlister of law firm Saiontz, Kirk & Miles, described it as "horrible," an imprecise legal term. It leaves employees who accidentally injure co-workers exposed to liability.
"The driver's basically playing 'you bet your house,' " said MacAlister. "Whenever you give your co-worker a ride in your employer's vehicle, you're exposing yourself to tremendous loss--I mean, catastrophic liability."
The decision raises all kinds of Dilbertian possibilities. That co-worker you can't stand? Have him give you and the boss a ride. Sit in the back. Then accidentally bump the driver's arm so he drives the front of the car (only) into a bus. The boss gets injured, so does the guy you hate, and then the boss's medical bills bankrupt both of them. It's a win-win. Finally, they sue your employer, which has solid entertainment potential.
Such musings aside, it was the phrase "you bet your house" that most attracted my attention. In the days of reality quiz shows such as "Deal or No Deal," can we be far off from "You Bet Your House" on Fox? Tune in at 10 p.m. as Regis Philbin pushes contestants to the brink of financial ruin--and beyond!
The show would doubtless be interspersed with insurance commercials where movie stars sit in with real people to enliven their story.
Woman: "I used to run the office car pool."
Tom Cruise: "She ran the pool!"
Woman: "And then the Maryland decision came in."
Tom Cruise: "You can't handle Maryland!"
Woman: "We had to sell the house to pay the boss' medical bills."
Tom Cruise: "Boy, is she screwed!"
Voice-over: Don't play You Bet Your House. Buy excess liability coverage from us.
I know, I'm making fun of someone else's tragedy. How would I like it if a co-worker bounced me off a bridge? I wouldn't. But I'm satirizing, which is my job, something in need of a sharp stabbing: a decision that endangers people's economic well-being as it endangers their lives--and the fact that great corporate brains would pursue such a plan.
The argument that swayed the court was the freedom to contract, and the need not to impose on insurance companies anything beyond legal minimum requirements. I myself am stringently opposed to doing anything beyond minimum legal requirements. But contracting away someone else's rights just because you're their employer and you can sounds cheesy, almost a form of theft for what can only be a tiny amount of saved premium.
You make money by squeezing it out of your customers. You make enemies by squeezing it out of your employees.
ROGER CROMBIE, the alternative risk columnist for Risk & Insurance®, lives in Bermuda.
January 1, 2007
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