A government watchdog organization has petitioned the U.S. House ethics counsel to investigate Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pennsylvania, for his efforts to increase liability insurance minimums for commercial truckers.
Why might this be unethical? Because the bill could personally benefit Cartwright, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) suggested in its letter:
“Representative Cartwright has a financial interest in a law firm that specializes in ‘big truck litigation’ and advertises itself as ‘the nation’s leading truck accident team.’ Cartwright was previously an attorney with Munley Law, where his wife is currently a partner and specializes in ‘commercial truck accident-related injury lawsuits.’ The law firm’s website currently promotes a ‘record-breaking $26 million settlement’ that Munley obtained in a ‘landmark truck accident case’ in 2018.”
FACT stated, “We request that the Office of Congressional Ethics immediately investigate Representative Matt Cartwright for taking official action in violation of House ethics rules.”
Cartwright, who lives in Moosic and represents Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, introduced two bills on truck insurance last summer.
Those bills “would require commercial truck drivers to purchase insurance liability coverage at a minimum of ($4.9 million), a 600-percent hike from the current $750,000 minimum,” reported the Washington Examiner. “Higher insurance liability coverage can allow firms representing a victim suing truckers to collect greater sums.”
“Usually when House members try to push legislation from which they would benefit personally, they are a little more creative,” said Peter Flaherty, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, in a post on his government watchdog’s website. “Did Rep. Cartwright think no one would notice that before he entered Congress he sued trucking companies for a living? This is pretty clumsy.”
“I shudder to think what this legislator believes passenger carriers should carry for insurance limits if they believe property carriers should be insured for nearly $5 million,” said Ken Presley, vice president of industry relations and chief operating officer of the United Motorcoach Association. “Liability limits were artificially inflated three decades ago to discourage new entrants. It was never about what the right amount should be, and it is not now.”
Bill HR3781, Improving National Safety by Updating the Required Amount of Insurance Needed by Commercial Motor Vehicles per Event, is cosponsored by Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill. Cartwright’s bill is commonly known by its acronym, Insurance Act of 2019.
The bill would increase the “minimum level of financial responsibility” for carriers “transporting property” to $4,923,154 and require the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to adjust the minimum every five years in step with the federal inflation statistic for medical care costs.
Cartwright’s proposal is endorsed by the American Association for Justice (AAJ), an advocacy and lobbying group for plaintiff’s lawyers.
“Trucking companies carry inadequate 1980s level of insurance which means thousands of crash victims are left without the financial resources to pay medical bills or restore the quality of life that they enjoyed before the crash,” said AAJ Chief Executive Officer Linda Lipsen in a press release issued after Cartwright filed his bill in July.
“In many cases, the burden of healthcare costs are passed on to taxpayers as Medicare and Medicaid shoulder millions of dollars of medical care each year due to inadequately insured carriers,” she said.
A 2014 study commissioned by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration noted that “only 0.06% of crashes result in damages that exceed today’s minimum coverage limits,” wrote Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) in a letter to Congress.
And, Spencer added, “The vast majority of carriers are insured at $1 million or more. Having additional coverage is obviously not required, but the insurance industry tends to naturally adjust levels based on market conditions.”
“Any rational person would conclude that when well over 99 percent of claims are resolved within the current insurance limits, there is no need to require increased limits. Trial lawyers would be the primary beneficiary of increased insurance limits.” said Presley of UMA. “Anyone eligible for Medicare and Medicaid benefits is going to claim those benefits regardless of how much a motor carrier has in insurance.”
FACT describes itself as “a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting accountability, ethics, and transparency in government and civic arenas. We achieve this mission by hanging a lantern over public officials who put their own interest over the interests of the public good.”
The foundation said Cartwright’s own filings document his “own interest” in higher pools of insurance coverage in trucking.
“In his most recent Financial Disclosure Report, Cartwright reported he and his wife each have profit-sharing agreements with Munley Law, together valued between $2 million and $10 million. Additionally, Cartwright’s wife was the chair of, and remains associated with, a trial attorney trade group that lobbied for the legislation Cartwright introduced and the group’s press release stated Cartwright’s wife helped ‘shape new laws.’”
Such conflicts are prohibited by House of Representative standards, wrote Kendra Arnold, executive director of FACT.
“The House Ethics rules require Members to ‘conduct themselves at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House’ and to adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of the ethics rules. These rules manifest in the specific rules requiring Members to refrain from taking official action when the Member has an apparent or actual conflict of interest,” FACT argued.
“A conflict of interest exists when a Member’s private affairs appear to or actually do conflict with their ability to officially act on behalf of the public interest. The ultimate concern ‘is risk of impairment of impartial judgment, a risk which arises whenever there is a temptation to serve personal interests.’”
“Cartwright previously introduced a similar proposal just months after joining Congress in 2013,” the Washington Examiner reported in September.
That story began, “Rep. Matt Cartwright has spent years sponsoring truck insurance legislation that would directly benefit his family’s law firm, in which he owns a multimillion dollar stake, according to financial and lobbying records reviewed by the Washington Examiner.”
Lawyers and law firms are, by far, the leading contributors to Cartwright’s campaign coffers, contributing $128,308 during the 2019-2020 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A category identified as “Leadership Political Action Committees” ranks second with $42,000 in donations to Cartwright, while the next interest group, “Building Trade Unions,” has given $30,000. Farther down the list is the insurance industry, which has donated $13,030, about half of that from political action committees.