WAGUESPACK: Louisiana, We Have A Problem

Our addiction to lawsuits is hurting us in more ways than we realize.

This addiction is rampant, expensive and comes in all shapes and sizes. It takes the form of embracing laws that restrict our citizens’ access to a jury trial while allowing public entities to cut contingency fee legal contracts behind closed doors. It makes daily headlines in the forms of legacy lawsuits, coastal lawsuits, parish lawsuits, education reform lawsuits, pension reform lawsuits, levee lawsuits, auto lawsuits, and many others.

It is evidenced in the fact that we have the 10th highest amount of lawyers per capita compared to other states, the highest percentage in the South, as well as almost twice the number of judges per capita in the nation. Again, this is the highest ratio in the South.

We see it in the number of actual suits we file against one another compared to other states. In 2012, more than 134,000 civil cases were filed in Louisiana. That same year, Alabama had just 42,489 civil cases filed in general jurisdiction courts. Alabama had an estimated 1,081 civil lawsuits filed per 100,000 people while Louisiana courts had 2,717 lawsuits filed per 100,000 people. In Kentucky, a state with a similar population size and geographic distribution, there were 43,505 civil suits filed in 2013. In Texas, 231,489 cases were filed – just double that of Louisiana – despite a population six times larger than our population.

I am an attorney. While I am not a practicing attorney, I am proud to be part of a noble profession that protects the rights of our citizens and businesses every day to help them reach their full potential. We all have friends or family members that are members of the legal profession, and we probably know most of them to be exemplary citizens in many different ways.

This isn’t personal in any way. Our state’s legal professionals are as talented as any in the country. But we have created a problem and we need to address it. Louisiana has created a culture to promote lawsuits as the way to solve problems where other more responsible states view them as a last resort to resolve a conflict.

The rest of the country sees what we have created quite clearly. This is why they score us so poorly on almost every list that ranks our legal climate against other states. Thus far, we have refused to look in that mirror. We do not want to view ourselves as others view us on this issue. We continue to tell ourselves they just don’t know what they are talking about.

Sensible lawsuit reform can change all of this in a way that helps our economy grow, but only if we are ready to face reality. If a healthier economy doesn’t motivate you, our need for lawsuit reform does not stop at economic benefit. We also need lawsuit reform to help solve our workforce challenges and contribute to lowering our state’s high re-incarceration rate.

According to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (LDOC), some 15,000 offenders are released from Louisiana’s prison system every year. Unemployed ex-offenders are three times more likely to commit another criminal offense than those who have a job. Ex-offenders without employment are also much more likely to be revoked from probation or parole for technical violations, especially since failure to pay fees and restitution and even hold a job are considered technical violations.

Louisiana’s recidivism rate is higher than the national average. The LDOC has initiated programs designed to reintegrate ex-offenders into the workforce, but the success of these programs depends on employers’ willingness to hire them. While it is clear that from a criminal justice and economic perspective the employment of ex-offenders should be encouraged, our civil liability system is working at cross-purposes with this goal. Employers fear they will be sued, and that fear deters them from hiring applicants with criminal history records. The fear is not without basis.

House Bill 505, by Rep. Herbert Dixon (D-Alexandria), would give non-violent ex-offenders a second chance, promote workforce productivity, lower crime, and reduce incarceration costs by establishing that employers, contractors, and premises owners cannot, except in certain exceptional circumstances spelled out in the bill, be sued for negligent hiring on the basis that the employee had previously committed a nonviolent criminal offense. Such legislation has been recommended by the American Bar Association and enacted in Kansas, Minnesota and Texas.

House Bill 505 makes sense for Louisiana. It is good public policy to promote sensible lawsuit reforms to remove impediments to the hiring of ex-offenders. This measure will not only benefit ex-offenders and their families, but the communities in which they live.

The merits are there. It really is a no brainer. But the reality is there are countless examples of sensible lawsuit reforms that are easy to implement but some are difficult to pass for one big reason. We don’t think we have a lawsuit problem.  We haven’t yet decided to view ourselves as other states clearly see us. One day we will and when that finally happens, it wont be a day too soon.

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