A bill aimed at changing Louisiana’s jury system in an effort to reduce the high cost of auto insurance cleared the state House last week and is awaiting action in the Senate. Three previous efforts to do something similar never got this far.
House Bill 372 by Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, would increase the time wreck victims have to file a lawsuit from one year to two.
The threshold for a jury trial would be reduced from $50,000 to $5,000. And the damages would be reduced by payments plaintiffs receive from their own medical insurance, workers’ compensation and other sources.
Businesses, insurance companies and most Republican lawmakers support the legislation. Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, calls Talbot’s measure “the bill of the session.”
State trial judges say it will clog the courts because of the reduced $5,000 threshold for juries hearing cases. Judges currently decide cases below $50,000. A spokesman for the state’s district judges said a judge can handle one of these cases in a day, but juries usually need three days.
Talbot said Louisiana has the second highest insurance rates in the country, and if something isn’t done it will have the highest rates. Critics say there is no guarantee the legislation will reduce those rates, and insist the bill restricts car crash victims’ access to the courts.
The vote to send the bill to the Senate was 69-30. The 69 votes for came from 58 Republicans, 9 Democrats and 2 independents. The 30 votes against came from 29 Democrats and 1 independent. Recorded as absent were 4 Republicans, 1 Democrat and 1 independent.
Republicans from this corner of the state who voted for the bill are Reps. Mark Abraham of Lake Charles, Ryan Bourriaque of Cameron, Stephen Dwight of Moss Bluff, Johnny Guinn of Jennings, Frank Howard of Many and Stuart Moss of Sulphur. Democrats voting against were Reps. James Armes of Leesville, A.B. Franklin of Lake Charles and Dorothy Sue Hill of Dry Creek.
Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, explained why giving crash victims more time to sue should help reduce costs.
“I think that’s one of the main causes why this state’s called the judicial hellhole because we have to file suit instead of working it out over a two-year period when there are damages,” Connick said.
Talbot said reducing the jury threshold from $50,000 to $5,000 would make filing a suit more costly and time-consuming and that would encourage out-of-court settlements.
Critics said it would force plaintiffs to take reduced settlements. Trial attorneys also insist other factors like distracted driving, urban congestion and the poor condition of roadways contribute to the high cost of insurance.
Jim Donelon, state insurance commissioner, supports what Talbot is trying to do, mentioning the three failed efforts. However, Donelon has said distracted driving, more traveling because of cheaper gasoline prices and expensive auto repairs are also contributing factors to high insurance costs.
Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, wanted to know if Talbot had gotten any commitment from insurance companies that they would lower rates if his bill was approved. Talbot said his legislation says the companies “shall” lower rates accordingly.
Jackson said Donelon has authority to lower rates and he should be mandated to do his job. She said it isn’t fair to make people wait two years to file a suit.
Rep. Raymond Garofalo, RChalmette, said the next lowest jury threshold to the state’s $50,000 is only $15,000. He said 36 states have a zero threshold.
Talbot’s bill has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which handles court matters. Some veteran legislators believe it will have a difficult time getting a favorable nod there. There are four Republicans and three Democrats on the committee. Six of the seven members are attorneys.
The Advocate, in an editorial supporting the legislation, said the $50,000 threshold for jury trials in Louisiana is 28 times the national average. The bill is complicated, the newspaper said, “and perhaps not likely to pass in a Legislature dominated by many lawyers of both parties.”
A New Orleans attorney, in a letter to the newspaper defending lawyers, said “the evidence has always pointed to insurance executives and their ilk raising their compensation and expenses to extravagant levels.”
What we do know is that the high cost of auto insurance in Louisiana is a fact, it has been a long-term problem and it is a complicated issue. So members of the Senate Judiciary A Committee should give the full Senate an opportunity to debate Talbot’s bill.
If the legislation survives there and isn’t vetoed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, the state for the first time can determine whether a longer time to file suit and a lower jury threshold will actually lower auto insurance rates. The people who pay those high auto insurance rates deserve to know the answer.