I saw today an interesting blog post by a Massachusetts law firm advocating that Massachusetts ban finance companies who offer loans to people using their personal injury cases as collateral. The post (and a comment to the post) argues that by making the loans non-recourse loans contingent on the settlement, these companies get around existing usury laws. Particularly in cases where liability is not at issue and payment is a near certainty, using non-recourse does seem like a backdoor around the law.
I have no idea of what my opinion is on these personal injury loans. It seems like the interest rate and the fees these companies charge is beyond ridiculous. But I’m sure these are risky loans from people who cannot otherwise obtain a conventional loan or even a credit card. As a personal injury lawyer, the loans are difficult because they make resolving the case and getting the client a good outcome all the more difficult. I had a case this year where the client took out a $23,000 loan that morphed into a $75,000 loan in three years. What ended up being a great settlement offer we received in mediation did not look nearly as good to the client who owed $150,000 in medical bills, legal fees, and the repayment of that loan. In this case, we did call the finance company which agreed to substantially reduce their loan from a preposterous return on investment to a mere obscene return on investment. The guy who I spoke to was a lawyer who owned the company and he was pretty reasonable. In the course of my negotiating the lien, I obviously contended that I thought the interest and fees were simply unconscionable. His response was that you cannot possibly know how many of these loans go bad.
Between unconscionable and reasonable, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. But obviously, in our free market economy, if there was that much money to be made making these loans, more companies would have entered the market, which would have decreased the overall cost of the loans. This reminds me of personal injury lawyers who complain about the obscene profits insurance companies make. If this were really true, wouldn’t we all buy a ton of Allstate stock today? But take a look at their stock over the last three years.
It is worth mentioning that most of these personal injury loan companies have some clause in the agreement with the client that their personal injury lawyer cannot attempt to negotiate the loan. (I hope I am not giving an idea to the companies that don’t have that clause.) We take the position that this agreement does not bind us from negotiating the lien and no one has ever suggested that our lawyers are obligated to honor that clause.