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INSURANCE COMPANIES WANT TO WRONG OUR RIGHTS

After a certain age, you don't get weepy over country-music laments or wonder at the integrity of politicians.

But even if you've got the digestive system of a boa constrictor, it is difficult to swallow the level of distortion, the high-finance perversion of facts and the bald-faced lying that is cascading over this season's ballot propositions.

For undiluted snake oil, look no further than the kill-the-lawyers propositions 103 and 301, paid for by the insurance industry. This campaign is a two-fer: Not only do lawyers get pounded like cheap pi?atas, but the voters get to take a swing at barbell-lifting convicts. If only it were true.

The truth is that the people who will be hurt most by the passage of propositions 103 and 301 are you and me. Prisoners in jail have nothing to do with this business.

Propositions 103 and 301 strip us of rights granted in the Arizona Constitution. Decisions now made by a jury will be turned over to state legislators. Instead of lawyers for both sides arguing before a panel of your peers, insurance lobbyists will strike deals with statehouse politicians to reduce the number of lawsuits filed and limit damages awarded. The insurance boys pocket the difference. To see how this system works, look at Arizona's Workers' Compensation program, which takes an insurance-industry-dominated approach. If you are crippled at work, you give up your right to sue the company in return for having your medical bills covered. Lost wages? Well, you can get a maximum of $16,800 per year. You say you made $40,000 before this injury? That's a shame. You can be decapitated and all you get is $16,800 per year.

To convince voters to accept similar reforms, as well as the sweeping changes in our constitution, the insurance industry has manufactured bogeymen for propositions 103 and 301.

Its ad campaign charges that our court system is clogged with frivolous lawsuits and that convicted felons are the worst abusers of the system.

In reality, the state justice system has seen a steady decline in all lawsuits. From 1990 to 1993, the number of cases filed declined each of the four years, dropping a total of 33 percent.

Unwilling to make an honest case for their positions, the insurance boys are just making it up as they go.

In one stunning television spot, we are told that 40 percent of Arizona's lawsuits are filed by people locked up in jails. That's not a distortion, it's an outright lie.

Statewide, for example, fewer than 1 percent of the cases filed in Superior Court are from prisoners.

Almost all inmate litigation is filed in federal court.
Furthermore, 103 and 301 are state propositions. They have no effect whatsoever on prisoner lawsuits, because that litigation is primarily a federal matter.

The ads on TV were such cheesy falsehoods that even the insurance lobby was embarrassed. The spots were pulled in mid-October.

Yet last week, just days before the election, a huge mailing hit Arizona households promising, once again, that the two propositions would put an end to the flood of inmate cases.

The language in the mailing is pyrotechnic: "Propositions 103 and 301 will put a stop to prisons suing the people of Arizona for the right to have creamy peanut butter, pornographic paraphernalia and pizza while in jail."

The insurance gang included a cover page from a clearly deranged inmate who sued over prison officials using lasers to kill his blood cells. Lawyers will notice that the case was filed in "United States District Court," a federal jurisdiction unaffected by 103 and 301.

Every time I see the insurance industry's cold, calculated distortions regarding prisoners, I think of a convict named Donald Beatty. Ten years ago, he committed the most heinous crime imaginable. Christy Fornoff was 13 years old when she and her mother went to the Rock Point apartment complex to collect money from the customers on the young girl's paper route. In the brief moments when the mother, Carol, lost sight of her daughter, Christy was grabbed by the apartments' handyman.

Donald Beatty, 29, molested and raped Christy. He placed her arms behind her back and tied a sheet over her upper body and head. He smothered the child to death.

With the body of Christy stored in his closet, Beatty then made a show of helping the police search the apartment complex for the missing child. He went door to door with Christy's dad looking for the young girl.

For a day and a half, Beatty lived with Christy's corpse. He lowered his thermostat to 65 degrees. Finally, Beatty took her body, threw it into a Dumpster and told the police he'd discovered her lifeless form. The handyman went to the kid's funeral, and at the end of the service, he walked to the front of the church and offered his condolences to Christy's dad while shaking Mr. Fornoff's hand.

Donald Beatty was eventually convicted for the kidnaping, rape and murder of Christy. During the courtroom ordeal, the Fornoffs discovered what sort of monster had abducted their baby. He had an extensive history of molesting children. Including his own.

In the midst of this tragedy, Carol and Roger Fornoff asked a reasonable question: How could an apartment complex hire a well-known pervert to be the friendly handyman, a job that would allow this creep to circulate freely among a beehive of children?

The answer was simple. No one had done a background check on Beatty. In the year before Rock Point hired him, Beatty had been fired from three different apartment complexes here in the Valley for erratic sexual behavior. He was both a peeping Tom and someone who generated numerous complaints from tenants concerned about his contacts with young girls in the neighborhood.

The Fornoffs sued Beatty's apartment complex, and its insurance company paid off.

Look, Christy's parents did not win the lottery with the insurance settlement. Their daughter is dead.

The courts, however, did respond to these terrible events. What's more important, things changed. When insurance companies are told by juries that their clients have been negligent, the insurance companies demand that their clients shape up.

Michele Gore, with property manager Colliers, Iliff, Thorn, said last week that her firm now does extensive criminal background checks on its employees.

"This kind of investigation was almost nonexistent ten years ago in Phoenix," said Gore, referring to the time the Fornoff homicide occurred. "Today, we use a security service. We look at the criminal background, we look at the Department of Motor Vehicles, we look at everything."

Gore oversees 400 units for her property-management firm.
"It really gives us peace of mind to know that some psycho doesn't have a master key. We have a liability factor, because so many people depend upon us for their security."

People like the Fornoffs. People like you and me.
The Fornoffs dedicated part of their settlement to fund a home for people who are suffering through the death of a loved one. Two hundred people per year, on average, pass through the doors of the facility, named the Christy Center.

Executive director Patti Keough said it helps people of all ages, from widows and widowers to very small children who have lost parents, a brother or a sister.

"Over the last several decades, our natural communities have broken down," said Keough. "Families are uprooted and moved. We have no one to talk to. This is very life-giving work, because you see people healing. Carol has ministered to these people."

The Fornoffs have recently underwritten a second Christy Center in northern Arizona.

Last Friday morning, I sat in the meditation garden of the Christy Center in Mesa. The sun was low in the dawning sky, the desert air cool, crisp. A statue of Jesus with a grief-stricken woman stands in the middle of the green space. Christ touches one hand to the poor woman's shoulder; His other hand covers His heart. She gazes into His eyes; her wringing hands brush tentatively against her cheek. You can't help but look at these figures and think that her anguish has been lifted.

And I wish that were enough. But it is not. These, after all, are only bereavement centers that help the individual; they don't reform the system. I take more comfort knowing that in the wake of the Fornoff lawsuit, apartment complexes are checking out who works on the grounds.

They have to. The insurance industry becomes a tough cop in the neighborhood when it gets slapped with meaningful lawsuits. Propositions 103 and 301 would put an end to the slapping.


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