British Columbia

'Essentially every claim is fought to a certain degree:' lawyer says ICBC could reduce litigation costs

By shifting away from delayed payments, one personal injury lawyer argues the insurance company might be able to improve its books.

ICBC rate increases could cost average customers $130 more a year

24 per cent of ICBC's total expenses can be attributed to legal costs. (ICBC)

ICBC could reduce its overall costs by abandoning a culture of fighting claimants in court, says a personal injury lawyer who has been in the business for two decades.

On Tuesday, the government announced the insurance company would seek approval of a 6.4 per cent increase to basic premiums and increase overall optional premiums by 9.6 per cent to address the company's financial woes.

​"They're not coming to the table with dollars at an early stage that would resolve the claim. They tend to hold it back until another year goes by," said Dairn Shane, a lawyer with Preszler Law.

"Essentially every claim is fought to a certain degree."

Shift in decision-making power

ICBC pays out 24 per cent of its expenses not to repairing damaged bumpers or soft tissue injuries, but to legal fees, according to a July report by Ernst & Young.

Shane said that B.C.'s adversarial approach to claims pushes legal costs up, results in larger settlements and angers customers who spend long periods of time waiting for settlements.

He said he's noticed the issue has become acute in the last five years and remembers the days when he used to deal with ICBC adjusters face-to-face.

"The claim would settle, everybody would shake hands, everybody would walk away," he recalled.

He believes the shift came when decision-making power at the corporation was centralized in the hands of management.

"They took it away from the adjusters that we would typically be dealing with," he said. "Some of the adjusters who previously had $200,000 to pay, suddenly had $20,000."

That shift meant far more settlements ended up in court, where the long legal process would drive up associated legal fees, he said.

'Deep and profound issues'

In the last six months, Shane said he noticed ICBC shift toward the old style of settling out of court.

"That's going to be much more beneficial than some sort of no fault system which at the end of the day just punishes victims of car accidents to the benefit of those that are causing them," said Shane.

Eby said the government needs to address "deep and profound issues" to keep insurance rates from rising even further.

In addition to the application for a rate increase, Eby said the government will increase the use of red light cameras, focus on reducing distracted driving, improve problem intersections and commission an "immediate and comprehensive" business audit of ICBC management.

While the new attorney general is quick to blame the previous Liberal government, Liberal MLA Andrew Wilkinson has fired back in a statement saying the NDP are offering no new solutions to the problem.

"Many of the actions the NDP are proposing today were contained in the Ernst and Young report commissioned earlier this year. Instead of offering new ideas on how to control the cost issue, Eby is attempting to lay blame for the challenges ICBC is currently facing rather than provide his own plan," the statement said.

The Ernst & Young report was commissioned by the former Liberal government and warned insurance rates may need to climb 30 per cent by 2019.

An internal report, released last November, said rates could even climb as high as 42 per cent by 2020.

With files from Liam Britten and CBC Radio One's On the Coast