As a court reporter, one of the joys of my job is picking through the pile of writs placed daily on the shelves of a small media cubbyhole inside Vancouver's B.C. Supreme Court registry.
It's a chance to get a first look at both the giant social battles that shape public conversation as well as the tiny, often bizarre conflicts which dominate private discussion — like who owns an engagement ring once a marriage is called off anyway?
Everyday, there's a wad of files with the letters ICBC on them. That's not surprising, given the insurer is one of the province's most prolific litigants. Mostly, I just sweep them to one side: they're identical in form, style and length — about four pages long, quick detail of an ordinary car accident and a demand for damages.
But last week, for some reason, a heap of ICBC claims as long as my forearm appeared on the table. More than I'd ever seen on one day. I counted 111. All filed Jan. 23.
This was a few days before Attorney General David Eby called ICBC's $1.3-billion projected loss a "financial dumpster fire" fuelled by soaring legal costs and a minor claim settlement average that had risen to $30,000 by 2016.
By that count, that pile of writs represented at least $3.3 million worth of payouts and who knows how many billable legal hours. Instead of sweeping them to one side, I decided to read each and every one of them with a view to gaining some insight into the accidents — and maybe attitudes — driving our insurance crisis.
First off, we have a rear-end problem. Whether we're waiting at stop lights, slowing for traffic, stopping for pedestrians or crossing the Port Mann, Queensborough or Alex Fraser bridges, we're liable to be struck from behind.
At least 34 of the claims I counted involved rear-enders. And that's by no means exhaustive, because more than two dozen of the claims were simply filed as motor-vehicle accidents with no explanation of circumstances.
I counted seven claimants who were hit while turning left. And at least that many who were in collisions with motorists who ran red lights, stop signs or made illegal turns.
At least five accidents occurred in parking lots.
Those include one involving a 43-year-old who collided with someone backing out of a parking stall at Richmond Centre and yet another where a motorist was rear-ended as he exited an underground parking lot.
Even pedestrians aren't safe in parking lots: one of the claims involves someone hit on foot in a parking lot on Fraser Street.
In fact, pedestrians aren't safe anywhere. They accounted for five of the claims — mostly in accidents at crosswalks and intersections. The eldest was 76 and the youngest was a teenager.
The claims came from children, the elderly and everyone in between, drivers and passengers both: the youngest was an an infant and the eldest was a 77-year-old man who was injured when the bus he was riding hit a pole.
Of course, driving skill is never mentioned. And distracted driving didn't come up once — though you have to wonder about all those rear enders at stop lights.
One unlucky passenger was in a car that plowed into two stopped vehicles. Another was in a car that "drifted into oncoming traffic" in Richmond, colliding with a southbound vehicle.
And then there were the writs from two different individuals, each man claiming for three separate accidents. What are the chances?
None of the claims puts a price tag on the damage, which is not unusual, but given the attorney general's comments and the individual circumstances, you have to wonder if every one of those claimants deserves a windfall.
As the websites for many injury lawyers point out, some of ICBC's largest payouts have come from rear enders, which is troubling when you consider that according to the insurer, British Columbians average 55,000 rear-enders a year.
The writs I dug through were among 262 ICBC-related claims filed in B.C. Supreme courts that Tuesday. That's just under half of all 748 civil claims filed provincewide on that day.
To put that in perspective, I asked ICBC for some figures. They said 19,450 notices of civil claim were filed against ICBC last year — up a staggering 66 per cent from 11,708 lawsuits in 2010.
I ran some of those figures past Mary Kelly, the chair of insurance at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo. She has studied insurance models across the country.
"The first thing to say: auto insurance exists within a culture," she told me. "And if you have a culture where people believe that they are due a certain amount, then they are going to try and get that certain amount. There becomes a lottery mentality. Can I get the most that I can out of the system?"
Court reporting has its limitations too; you can't tell from a notice of civil claim who's lying. But someone often is.