BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s Republican lawmakers Tuesday started advancing proposals to limit damage claims against businesses in car wreck lawsuits, pushing ahead with the pre-coronavirus priority as Democrats argued the debate was inappropriate amid a pandemic.
Separate House and Senate committees debated “tort reform” measures that would make sweeping changes to Louisiana’s civil litigation system, aimed at lessening liability of insurance companies and other businesses. The measures would change the rules for accessing the courts and suing over injuries.
After a full day of debate, the House civil law committee voted 11-5 for one bill by Republican Rep. Ray Garofalo, sending the measure to the full House for debate. A Senate judiciary committee appeared poised to back a similar proposal by Sen. Kirk Talbot, a Republican from River Ridge.
Supporters, including business lobbying organizations, said Louisiana’s legal climate encourages people to sue, with personal injury lawyers advertising the promise of large payouts. They blame those lawsuits for driving up car insurance costs for everyone.
Louisiana’s automobile insurance rates are second-highest in the nation, averaging around $2,200 per year, according to Bankrate.com and other websites that track the auto insurance industry.
Garofalo and Talbot, backed by GOP Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, said lessening lawsuits and payouts would force down car insurance premiums, drawing more companies to Louisiana and making the marketplace more competitive.
Garofalo, from Chalmette, said Louisiana’s laws are “out of whack with the rest of the country. That’s why rates are so high.”
Opponents said the changes aren’t proven to lower rates and could keep people injured in car accidents from receiving compensation for medical costs. They said lawmakers were promised insurance premium drops two decades ago when the Legislature adopted significant changes to the civil litigation system and those rate reductions never happened.
“I’m just tired of us passing all of these bills and we still have the highest rates,” said Sen. Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat.
The proposals would require use of jury trials more frequently, so lawyers have to argue cases for damages to more people than a single judge; cap certain damages that can be awarded; limit when insurance companies can be sued directly; and increase the time that accident victims can file lawsuits to provide more time to negotiate a settlement.
Donelon estimated insurance rates would drop 25% with passage.
But there’s no guarantee. The measures assume insurance companies would drop premiums for private passenger policies by 10% a year after the changes take effect in 2021. The bills include provisions, however, allowing companies to avoid the rate cuts.
Democrats questioned why Republicans were moving the bills during the coronavirus outbreak. House Democratic leader Sam Jenkins, from Shreveport, said virus concerns were depressing public participation in the debate.
“Tort reform is far-reaching. It’s going to affect our courts. It’s going to affect the average person’s pocketbook … Everyone needs the opportunity to speak on it,” Jenkins said.
Republicans lawmakers — many of whom were backed by business groups in last year’s campaigns — countered that the lawsuit climate is an economic development deterrent and remedying the problem is more urgent with the virus crippling businesses.
Judges raised concerns about the expense of adding more jury trials to their dockets.
If the bills reach Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk, it’s unclear what the Democrat will do. He won his reelection bid with support from personal injury lawyers and hasn’t taken a position on the court system changes.
Edwards backed bills by Sen. Jay Luneau, an Alexandria Democrat, that would prohibit insurance companies from using gender, credit scores and certain other “risk classifications” to set premiums. Senators killed those measures in committee.