Insurance Lobby Contrived Crisis Campaign 2.0: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again!

United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney had barely been sworn in as Premier of Alberta last year when well-connected Tory insiders Celyeste Power (former press secretary to Mr. Kenney) and Nick Koolsbergen (UCP campaign chair for the April 2019 Alberta election) began messaging our new Premier and his government behind closed doors on behalf of the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the powerful lobby group for the multibillion dollar insurance industry. The message: automobile insurance corporations are losing money due to skyrocketing injury claims, so pretty please lift the lid on the premiums auto insurers can charge Alberta motorists (mission accomplished last summer) and slash or outright eliminate pain and suffering compensation payable to innocent injured car crash victims by careless drivers’ insurers. But contrary to the insurance lobby’s message, in fact, Alberta auto insurers are posting robust profits in 2019-20, and injury claims cases are in sharp decline. Will our UCP MLAs protect vulnerable Albertans from the unnecessary, unconservative, unfair and unAlbertan demands of this pair of Ontario-based auto insurance lobbyists? Stay tuned...

 

For Mark McCourt, who has been representing injured victims of negligent motorists since 1991, the IBC’s current contrived crisis campaign looks like deja vu all over again. Back in 2003-04, it was well-connected Tory insider (and IBC lobbyist) Jim Rivait telling Alberta Finance Minister Pat Nelson that vehicle insurance companies were losing money due to out-of-control injury claims, and that if she would be so kind as to cap injury compensation, perhaps the industry could turn a small profit even while reducing rates for high-risk young male drivers (Mrs. Nelson had one at home at the time).

 

In rapid response, Mr. McCourt quickly set up a counter-lobby group called AVIPA, the Accident Victims/Insurance Policyholders Advocate, to inform the government and the governed that in fact, insurers were raking in all-time record high profits, and injury claims were (you guessed it) actually in sharp decline. McCourt took a leading role in opposing the insurance lobby, tirelessly meeting with MLAs including Premier Klein, interviewing with TV, radio and print media locally, provincially and nationally, and running public service announcements including one in particular that simply became known as “The Rebecca Ad”.

 

AVIPA vs. IBC was a mismatch, as the insurance lobby (which arguably rivals SNC-Lavalin in its pernicious penchant for persuading pliable politicos) had a massive head start and exponentially deeper pockets. But so what? Fictional lawyer Atticus Finch in the novel To Kill A Mockingbird described courage this way: “It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

 

In October 2003, Finance Minister Nelson, on a crusade to cut victim compensation in exchange for rate reprieve for the young and the reckless, presented to government caucus a proposal calling for a $4000 cap on pain and suffering compensation for practically all non-catastrophic injuries. Serious injuries not subject to the proposed cap included death, quadriplegia, paraplegia, severe traumatic brain injury, amputation, third degree burns and internal organ damage. As the Premier at the time genuinely believed that his caucus was comprised of intelligent elected representatives and not merely trained seals (let’s pray our present Premier feels likewise), Nelson’s putrid proposal was put to a vote, and the result could not have been closer: it was defeated by a one vote margin! Much to the chagrin of Mrs. Nelson and her ministry minions, the deciding vote was cast by outspoken maverick PC MLA Brent Rathgeber QC, an injury lawyer at McCourt Law Offices for years before being elected to the Alberta Legislature. Said Mr. Rathgeber, “I appreciate that the bureaucrats at the Department of Finance have limited interest in an unbiased and objective analysis; however we as politicians MUST insist on objectivity and fairness both in process and result.”

 

The following day, on the front page of the Edmonton Journal under the headline “Fictional Victim Helps Fell Tory Goliath”, veteran political reporter Graham Thomson wrote, “Even Goliath didn’t go down this hard. Finance Minister Pat Nelson’s plan for reforming Alberta’s auto insurance industry was toppled with the help of a seven-year-old accident victim named Rebecca. To add insult to injury, Rebecca isn’t even real. Neither was her accident. She is a fictional character in an ad campaign presented by a lobby group run by personal injury lawyers, the Accident Victims/Insurance Policyholders Advocate or AVIPA. Designed to inject emotion into the debate, Rebecca was the poster girl for accident victims afraid Nelson’s now-defeated plan would rob them of their right to sue for fair compensation. You may have seen Rebecca’s photograph in the newspaper ads, staring out at you forlornly alongside her equally sombre, pregnant mother. Except that the little girl is actually the daughter of Mark McCourt, one of Edmonton’s top personal injury lawyers who is also legal counsel for AVIPA.”

 

Poor Mrs. Nelson had to settle for a $4000 cap on minor sprains and strains that heal relatively quickly a year later in October 2004, before retiring from politics the following month. One might reasonably surmise that she was a smidge peeved with McCourt’s audacity to dare criticize those in power, but as Eric Arthur Blair -- using the (gasp!) pseudonym George Orwell -- once said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Alberta Venture magazine named Mark McCourt one of the province’s 50 Most Influential People for 2004, as a result of his integral role in battling those who propose to rip full and fair compensation rights away from innocent Albertans (mostly women and children) wrongfully hurt by reckless motorists. 

 

But McCourt did not emerge from the battle unscathed, as yet another well-connected Tory insider and lobbyist named Jeff Kovitz compiled (with help from Mrs. Nelson and certain apparatchiks in her department) a complaint against McCourt to the Law Society of Alberta. McCourt fell on his sword with a media mea culpa tour, but that was far from enough to mollify the complainant. While Mark McCourt’s lawyer at the hearing, the legendary John Weir QC, bluntly remarked that McCourt’s main mistake was apologizing, the LSA felt otherwise, slapping Mr. McCourt with a fine and a brief suspension (albeit somewhat longer than the suspension Edmonton Oilers Captain Connor McDavid served last year, also apparently for getting his elbows up in the heat of battle). Notably, the LSA’s controversial decision was rendered over 15 years ago, long before the Supreme Court of Canada wisely and unanimously ruled that even lawyers have constitutionally protected free speech rights and “should not be expected to behave like verbal eunuchs. They not only have a right to speak their minds freely, they arguably have a duty to do so.”

 

Rest assured that although he has mellowed with age and experience, Mark McCourt is watching the insurance lobby’s 2020 contrived crisis campaign carefully, and he fully and unapologetically intends to discharge his duty to keep Albertans informed as this auto insurance review unfolds. Best wishes to FAIR Alberta in its admirable efforts to advocate for innocent injured auto accident victims’ rights at least as effectively present-day as AVIPA did a generation ago.