You buy insurance to cover you in case your car crashes. Now lawyers can buy insurance in case their case crashes. It’s another take on a movement that has some academic street cred: Financing plaintiffs so they can persist longer in litigation against corporations and insurance companies that normally have cash and time on their side.
Attorneys Justin Leto and Larry Bassuk launched LevelEsq (formerly Level Insurance) last month and it’s too early to say whether the product is a success but they hope to carve out a niche in competition with existing lenders who finance plaintiff lawyers with high-interest loans, often secured by personal property. Another alternative is financing companies — for legal reasons, they say they aren’t lenders — who “invest” in personal-injury suits for a percentage of any winnings.
There are conflicts inherent in any such arrangement, especially if lawyers put pressure on their clients to accept a settlement in order to pay back their own loans. Ethics rules in every state prohibit investors from exercising any type of control over the conduct of litigation they finance, but nasty fights can break out when plaintiffs sell pieces of their case to multiple lenders and don’t collect enough to pay them all off.
Leto and Bassuk, Miami personal-injury lawyers, decided insurance could provide a better mechanism for keeping the litigation rolling. Level is offering insurance policies for up to $100,000 at a flat fee of 7%. Lawyers must purchase the policies within 90 days of serving papers on the defendant and they only collect if they lose. Level is the managing general agent and Aspen Insurance insures the risks.
“At the end of day if I have a bad case and it goes real far south the only asset I have to cover costs is personal assets or the assets of the firm itself,” said Bassuk. “This provides blanket coverage so the focus isn’t on dollars and cents but on the merits of the case.”
Unlike litigation-finance shops, Level isn’t vetting cases. Doesn’t that give lawyers an incentive to buy a policy and blow $100,000 on a long-shot case?
“Your end game with a contingency-fee case after 2-3 years of hard-fought litigation is to earn that fee,” said Bassuk. “If I give you back all your costs with no interest I don’t see that as an incentive to swing for the fences.”
Costs mount quickly in a med-mal or complex injury case. A neurosurgery expert can cost “$50,000 and well into six figures,” Bassuk said. “And if there’s a trial loss that money’s gone.
Level faces stiff competition from established plaintiff lenders including Oasis Finance and Gerson Keller Capital. It joins a number of firms targeting the low end of the litigation market, and it remains to be seen if the returns there justify the investment.
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