…namely, HB 372 – which is Rep. Kirk Talbot’s bill aimed at driving down Louisiana’s absolutely ridiculously high auto insurance rates. After two hours of messy, and often idiotic, debate, the bill overwhelmingly passed on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The River Ridge Republican’s bill has several parts to it, among them dropping the state’s $50,000 jury trial threshold down to $5,000, which would bring Louisiana somewhat in line with the rest of the country. At $50,000, Louisiana’s threshold is more than three times higher than the next-highest state (Maryland, at $15,000), and 36 states don’t have a jury trial threshold at all – meaning that any amount of money in controversy can be brought to a jury for a verdict at trial. Here, you can go in front of a judge whose campaign your plaintiff attorney helped finance and get a verdict of $49,999 more or less for the asking.
If you don’t believe that, consider that Trudy White is now trying civil cases in Baton Rouge.
The jury trial threshold is an in-the-weeds type of issue which is difficult to mobilize voters in favor of, but there’s a pretty simple way to message it – which is that Louisiana has a $50,000 threshold which nobody else has, and Louisiana has the least-affordable car insurance rates in America. Obviously we’re doing something wrong, and so bringing the state’s laws more in line with the rest of the country should have a positive effect.
Another element of the bill is to increase the prescription period for lawsuits to two years following the incident in controversy. Currently you have a one-year prescription period, meaning that you have one year to settle a claim before you have to sue on it. Trial lawyers have said that one-year period encourages the filing of lawsuits and helps Louisiana have the highest incidence of personal injury suits arising from car wrecks in the country – which is the number one reason for the sky-high insurance rates here.
Talbot’s bill also addresses something tort reform advocates have railed about for years; namely, the collateral source rule. That’s a very in-the-weeds legal doctrine in force in Louisiana which essentially says that if you’re in a car wreck and you sue the other party and their insurance company for injury damages, they aren’t allowed to introduce evidence that, say, your medical bills were paid by your health insurance company or your company’s workman’s compensation insurance. The effect of that is you might end up recovering more in damages for an injury than you would otherwise be entitled to, and the bill seeks to end such double recoveries.
The bill doesn’t have the mandatory insurance rate reductions that were talked about as it was being written before Talbot filed it. Instead it allows the Department of Insurance to review insurance rates and make downward adjustments as the Insurance Commissioner sees fit based on the state’s legal climate – meaning that if auto insurers doing business in Louisiana start banking huge profits based on litigation costs going down as a result of these reforms, rate reductions are likely to come from the top even before market competition begins driving them down.
It’s a great bill, and it’s a real opportunity to address the out-of-control merry-go-round between billboard lawyers, car wrecks, doctors-for-hire and skyrocketing insurance rates in the state.
And though it got 69 yeas against only 30 nays – every one of which was a Democrat, which should tell you all you need to know about the Louisiana Democrat Party which says it’s the defender of poor people and yet sides with rich personal injury lawyers instead of cooperating in driving insurance rates down to the point the poor can afford them – Talbot’s bill has gone about as far as it will go this session.
Why is that? Because when HB 372 hits the Senate next week, it’s going to be shunted off to the Judiciary A committee where it will be summarily executed.
Jud A is chaired by Rick Ward, a trial lawyer. Its vice chairman is Jay Luneau, who is also a trial lawyer. Four of the five other members of the committee – Danny Martiny, Ryan Gatti, John Milkovich and Wesley Bishop – are also lawyers, though Bishop’s day job is as a vice chancellor at Southern University-New Orleans (a job he does, apparently, when he feels like it and gets paid nonetheless). If there is a tort reform bill which has ever made it out of this committee we’re not aware of it.
Talbot’s bill will be dead next week, in all likelihood. The question isn’t whether it dies, though. The question is what the repercussions will be once it does. Will the failure of that bill, likely at the quiet direction of the Edwards administration, be a political issue this fall?
By all means it should be. Louisiana has the least affordable insurance rates in America, and the most obvious reason why is the state’s tort system is abjectly dysfunctional because its rules are out of line with the rest of the country. And the status quo in the state where its tort and insurance systems are concerned is dominated by rich plantiff lawyers with their faces on billboards along the interstate and on local TV stations with smarmy ads appearing again and again and again ad nauseam.
If the people of this state are OK with that, and if we’re so OK with it we’re willing to pay the highest insurance rates in America to get it, then so be it. Every business in the state which involves trucking or transportation is going to leave, and Louisiana’s economy is going to continue to become less and less competitive with its neighbors – which means the 68,000 more people who have left the state than have moved in over the past three years is a Swedish massage compared to what’s coming.
That’s the future we’re embracing if we don’t choose the reforms in Talbot’s bill aimed at stopping the lawsuit merry-go-round. This issue won’t be decided at the legislature. It’ll be decided on Election Day.