Oct. 13, 2006 — A St. Thomas attorney who waged a yearlong campaign to up the ante for settling auto accident cases, is calling on voters to hold lawmakers accountable for failing to raise the limit on certain kinds of accident-related damages.
Robert King says he began his effort to raise the liability cap last October by writing to members of the 26th Legislature, and at one point thought he had the support of lawmakers and Government House. The effort was later stopped by a veto by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
King blames lawmakers, who he said changed their votes or abstained on an attempted overrride made a few weeks after the veto was issued. Now, he says, those lawmakers should be made to pay politically for backing down.
"As to those senators who abstained from voting to consider override of the the governor's veto, let us abstain in this election from voting for them," the lawyer said in an Oct. 13 open letter addressed to fellow Virgin Islanders. "For the senators who consistently voted against repeal of this unjust law or refused to consider overriding the governor's veto, fire them and let them look for jobs elsewhere."
King said he intends to publish the letter in the territory's newspapers. At issue is the $75,000 liability cap spelled out in the V.I. Code, which he and other members of the local legal community say is the lowest amount set anywhere in the United States. That figure represents the highest amount of money the victim of an auto accident could claim as compensation for non-economic damages, also known as pain and suffering.
Ten members of the 26th Legislature, last December, voted to repeal the provisions contained in Section 20 of the V.I. Code, which set the liability cap. The governor vetoed that repeal, but in his veto message said that he, too, felt the $75,000 cap was too low. King says the current cap limits the ability of the poor — particularly the elderly, the young and the underemployed — to receive reasonable compensation for any auto-related injuries they may suffer.
"After further analysis and research, I will be submitting to the Legislature shortly, a bill to amend Title 20, section 555, Virgin Islands Code that would include a more reasonable cap that would be fair to all parties concerned," the governor wrote.
But King said, the new legislation never appeared, and when given a chance to override the veto in January, senators failed to hold the 10-member majority together.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste was among those lawmakers who moved for the override. He said there is no way to speculate why some of his colleagues may have changed their minds on the matter.
"I wouldn't second guess any of my colleagues in terms of their mindset at the time or how they might have been influenced by the dynamics of debate on the floor," the St. Croix senator said Friday. "People so much had their individual convictions, their perceptions of the insurance industry, their take in terms of liability issues, and how the industry in general could have been impacted by the lifting of such a cap. I personally try to put constituents first in terms of any decision I make."
Senate Majority Leader Roosevelt C. David, who in earlier Senate terms sponsored the bill to make auto insurance mandatory in the Virgin Islands, said a repeal of the liability cap was not in order.
"Some people don't seem to understand that even though there's a $75,000 cap in place, that's basically for pain and suffering. You could still sue for loss of wages or a number of other things," David said. "I remember the governor making a statement, saying that he was going to submit legislation to do just that … but nothing has happened since then."
In his letter, King called on voters to "send a message that a Virgin Islander is not of less value than other, similarly injured, Americans."
"Today, after much debate and gubernatorial promises to change the law, this cap remains in place; it remains the law; and it gives testimony that our society places less value on the life of a Virgin Islander than any of the 50 states places on the lives of its citizens," he said.
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