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Hoping for cheaper auto insurance, House committee advances legal changes

April 15, 2019
Originally posted on The Center Square

A House committee on Monday endorsed several changes that supporters hope will create a legal environment that will lead to lower automobile insurance rates.

Louisiana currently has the second-highest average auto insurance rates in the nation behind Michigan, lawmakers said, and always ranks among the most expensive. Regarding commercial auto insurance, “we are in a crisis,” Rep. Kirk Talbot said.

Business owners increasingly are finding they can’t afford to insure their fleets, if they can find a company to write their insurance at all.

“We’re losing companies every year,” said Talbot, a River Ridge Republican.

Talbot’s House Bill 372 proposes four changes. It would lower the state’s threshold for requiring a civil jury trial to $5,000 from the current $50,000, by far the highest in the nation.

It would also take away the ability to sue an insurance company directly, allow judges and juries to review a plaintiff’s medical expenses, and would extend the time limit to file a suit from one year to two.

The changes were endorsed by a broad group of business and industry representatives. Some have reservations about giving a plaintiff an additional year to sue after a wreck, though the hope is that it would allow for more time to reach a settlement and avoid the time and expense of a trial.

Commissioner of Insurance Jim Donelon said he was confident the bill would lead to lower insurance rates, though he said it was impossible to put a number on the savings. The bill would mandate annual reviews for three years and require insurers to lower rates if their costs go down.

Attorney Robert Kleinpeter, who opposed Talbot’s bill on behalf of the Louisiana Association for Justice, said there was little if any evidence the bill’s provisions would actually lead to lower rates. For example, seven of the 10 most expensive states for auto insurance have no jury threshold at all, he said, suggesting Louisiana’s high threshold doesn’t lead to higher rates.

But dramatically lowering the threshold will lead to far more jury cases, which tend to take longer, and clog the court system, Kleinpeter said. On that point, judges Lisa Woodruff-White and Bob Morrison agreed, though they did not take a position on the bill’s other measures.

Woodruff-White said that, due to a shortage of pro bono representation, more litigants are representing themselves, and it takes more time for a court to address their needs. The state has also created 77 “problem-solving courts,” such as those focused on drugs or truancy, that require a lot of time for administration.

Morrison said lowering the threshold would push a lot of cases out of city court, raising the district court workload. Criminal cases tend to take precedence, so the net result would be a heavy backlog of civil cases with no clear benefit, he said.

The committee also advanced House Bill 51, a measure that would allow judges and juries to discuss whether the person who is suing over an auto accident was wearing a seat belt. The bill was amended to require any awards to a plaintiff found not to have been buckled up be reduced by 25 percent.

The bill by Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, is meant to encourage people to wear their seatbelts and lessen the severity of injuries, hopefully saving lives and leading to lower insurance costs. Opponents argued that it would reward the party that caused the accident, noting that not wearing a seat belt doesn’t cause accidents.

Both measures were reported favorably by the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure by a 7-2 vote and will be considered by the full House.