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Tort reform Part 3: Enthusiasm and dissent

March 12, 2020
Originally posted on KTBS 3

In parts one and two of the KTBS three-part series on tort reform in Louisiana, the goal was to define the problem and examine some of those who may shoulder the blame for the state’s high auto insurance rates.

In this third installment the goal is to concentrate on those involved in writing the laws that’ll push insurance rates lower.

Most lawmakers agree something needs to be done, but there is disagreement on exactly what that is. There's enthusiasm and dissent.

“There is tremendous momentum to do something about Louisiana’s auto insurance rates,” said state Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport).

“The effort, as I understand it, is to promote tort reform specifically to address auto insurance rates,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said. 

“Lowering the insurance rates for our citizens and our businesses, like loggers, truck drivers, is paramount,” said state Rep. Dodie Horton (R-Bossier City).

Getting Louisiana’s auto insurance rates down seems to be the number one topic in the new legislative session. Now, it’s up to lawmakers and the governor to get it done. The problem is nobody can seem to agree on exactly how to do that.

“Tort reform is probably the least defined issue of the session that lawmakers just can’t stop talking about,” political analyst Jeremy Alford said. 

Tort reform was killed in the Senate Judiciary A Committee a year ago.

“But we have a very different upper chamber this term, and I would imagine something, in some form, is going to make it through the process,” Alford said. 

But wading through that process could be tough.

“We need to know more from the insurance industry side and their practices,” said state Rep. Sam Jenkins (D-Shreveport). “Are they making insurance less affordable? Do they have some practices making the number of people that can be insured, reduced?” 

Jenkins does not believe the insurance companies have been transparent.

“I’m hoping, as we head into the session and we begin to hear bills about tort reform, the experts on this subject matter will come forward and be able to give some testimony to the committees, and truthfully answer some questions about why insurance rates in Louisiana are so high,” Jenkins said.

And those rates are taking a big bite out of Louisiana pocketbooks.

“We have the second highest auto rates of the 50 states, second only to Michigan,” said Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon. “We’re No. 1 in America in cost of auto insurance; we’re No. 49 in America in per capita income.”

“We are, far and away number one in unaffordability. In other words, if you look at the average income in Louisiana versus what the premium is, we are by far the most unaffordable rates in the country,” said state Sen. Kirk Talbot.

Clearly, something needs to change.

“It’s our laws that must be amended,” said Horton. “I do believe it’s a bi-partisan issue.”

But Jenkins, officially voted in as the chairman of the Democratic Caucus in Baton Rouge just recently, is skeptical about newly proposed tort reform legislation. For example, Jenkins believes lowering the jury threshold will lead to more overcrowding of the judicial system.

He does not believe the much-maligned billboard attorneys drive insurance rates higher, adding that he sees as many insurance commercials as attorney commercials.

And Jenkins believes barriers need to be removed, barriers that are keeping the pool of insureds at a lower level, barriers like marital or military status.

“There’s nothing in HB9 that really requires the insurance industry to come forward and make proactive moves to try to reduce insurance rates,” Jenkins said.

And Jenkins says a balance needs to be found so insurance rates can be more affordable, more people can be insured, and claims have merit.

“Until we get to that point,” said Jenkins, “I think you are going to have two sides pointing the finger at one another, saying 'You are the reasons insurance rates are so high in Louisiana.’”

But there does seem to be desire and hope.

“I do think there’s common ground, based on bills that were introduced last year that were unsuccessful there are some portions of those bills, I think, that can be agreed to and that we can probably move forward with,” the governor said.

“The goal is not to pass a bill so we can pat ourselves on the back and feel good. The goal is to pass a bill that actually lowers Louisiana auto insurance rates,” Seabaugh said.

“I do not think HB9 really addresses the problem,” said Jenkins. “I honestly do not.”

And Jenkins had a further word of caution: “I doubt if you’re going to get a resolution this session.”

That’s not good news for people like insurance commissioner Donelon, who is convinced tort reform will happen this session.

And that includes Stephen Waguespack, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry executive director.

“If it doesn’t pass this year, we will bring it the next year, and the next year, and the next year, and the next year,” said Waguespack. “And every year until we get it done. Because I cannot look those farmers, truckers, loggers and small businesses — I cannot look them in the eye anymore and say we’ve given up.”

Alford said from all indications, tort reform will move quickly through the legislature. The reason: if lawmakers send a bill to the governor and he veto’s it, there will be enough time to address an override without going into a special session.

Click here to watch the video.