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Capitol Views: Business lobby laments legal reform landscape

April 9, 2018
By Jeremy Alford
Originally Posted on Greater Baton Rouge Business Report

A procedural move by the Senate last week, on a bill to reverse the so-called seat belt gag order, caught the attention of business lobbyists in a big way.

Many of them viewed the bill by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, as one of the few opportunities lawmakers would have this session to vote on something squarely in the realm of tort reform. (That means it may become a memorable vote for the association’s that play in legislative elections.)

The Senate Transportation Committee amended Hewitt’s Senate Bill 382 to permit a judge to inform a jury if a driver was not wearing a seat belt, but only in relation to car accidents that produced personal injury lawsuits. Rather than the bill receiving a floor vote after that, a motion was approved by the full Senate (21-16) to recommit the measure to the Judiciary A Committee.

Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, wrote in a column last week, “The stated rationale was simply to ‘follow the process,’ but the unstated goal was clearly to kill the bill. The motion passed, and this common-sense legislation will likely die in that committee.”

Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, has a similar approach with his House Bill 700, which was originally assigned to the House Transportation Committee before it was discharged. HB 700 was then sent to the Civil Law Committee, which endorsed McFarland’s safety belt measure in a 6-1 vote. The bill is now pending on the House floor, and is scheduled for a vote Tuesday. But it may have a rough road to travel. Administration officials, for instance, say they have concerns about the bill.

Plus, the Senate has already spoken on the topic, which prompted Waguespack to put pen to paper in his column: “Why should you care about this tidbit of parliamentary procedure? Because ‘following the process’ will once again quietly kill anything remotely close to legal reform in the Louisiana Legislature.”

When Hewitt’s bill received its first committee hearing, no one spoke in opposition.

When McFarland’s version was heard initially on the House side, Bob Kleinpeter of the Louisiana Association For Justice, which has a membership of mostly trial attorneys, offered several arguments against the bill. He said 39 out of 50 states do not allow seat belt violations to be entered as evidence under similar circumstances.

Kleinpeter also expressed concern over the unintended costs to average citizens and the likelihood of insurance rates going up, due in part to increased court costs. “If an innocent mother unbuckles her seatbelt at a stop sign to get a sippy cup for a child that drops,” Kleinpeter told lawmakers, “and she gets rear-ended at 40 miles per hour by someone who hasn’t gotten the proper sleep in several days, she shouldn’t be further penalized.”

In his opinion column, Waguespack touches on some of the same topics, including the impact on premiums, the rate of vehicle accidents and medical costs.