Landry Is Flirting With Disaster On A Key Tort Reform Bill

If you happened to listen to Moon Griffon’s show this morning you probably had your eyes pop wide open when Sen. Alan Seabaugh went on for a segment in which he blew up Louisiana’s governor on tort reform.

We’ll try to explain where that came from, because there’s a real spot of trouble potentially coming within the Republican Party, and Seabaugh is ringing alarm bells about it.

Let’s start deep in the background here, because there are practicalities which get in the way of necessities where governing as a conservative is concerned.

And we’ll begin with this: what do you think is the reason why Bobby Jindal won election and re-election as governor so easily in 2007 and 2011, while David Vitter and Eddie Rispone fell short in 2015 and 2019 – despite the fact the state was continuously moving to the right along that timeline?

The most obvious answer, the one that Jeff Landry and his campaign team took a lesson from last fall, was that Jindal didn’t go to war with the trial lawyers while Vitter and Rispone led with their chins in fighting them.

It’s trial lawyer money which funds statewide Democrat political campaigns in Louisiana when those are funded. Vitter and Rispone decided to take on the trial lawyers, and for their trouble there was a political action committee, the infamous GumboPAC, which turned millions of dollars in contributions from the plaintiff bar into ads about hookers and supposedly shady business deals.

So from the outset, Landry told the trial lawyers that he would be more like Jindal and less like Vitter. Even though politically, Landry fits much more within the Vitter ideological style than that of Jindal.

And it worked. Trial lawyer money never materialized behind Shawn Wilson, and it didn’t follow Hunter Lundy, a Democrat member of the plaintiff bar who ran as an “independent.” In a different kind of cycle Lundy might very well have emerged as a come-out-of-nowhere faux populist dark horse, but that didn’t happen because Landry cut deals with the people who would have backed him.

If you’re a conservative you might not like it much, but the fact is making some peace with the trial lawyers to get elected is smart politics.

So Landry does that and he gets elected. Then he takes office and finds out that the legislature he’s got to work with is not the same legislature Jindal faced.

It was just as well for Jindal to cut deals with the trial lawyers and take their money, because he wasn’t getting any serious tort reform done with the legislature in office during his two terms.

But now? The current group is loaded with people who want real tort reform. Despite those trial lawyer dollars staying out of last year’s governor’s race there was a torrent of money in legislative races which didn’t produce wins.

So there were a number of tort reform bills which moved through the legislature. And Landry has signed some already. For example, he signed HB 337, which was the bill getting rid of Louisiana’s direct-action statute.

But another bill a bit more central to the cause of tort reform, Landry is saying he won’t sign. And this one is going to be a big problem which might split the conservative movement and do a ton of damage.

The bill is HB 423. Seabaugh’s law partner Michael Melerine, a freshman state representative who was on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education before moving on to the legislature, is its author. HB 423 would change Louisiana’s “collateral source rule” in a way the plaintiff bar can’t stand.

Rather than explain the rule, we’ll just say that currently, juries in personal injury cases only get to find out the “sticker price” of what medical providers bill insurance companies for, rather than what was actually paid.

There’s often a difference, is the point. Insurance companies generally have enough buying power that they can negotiate the number down. But that difference isn’t reflected in jury awards, so insurers will get popped for damages on medical expenses beyond what it actually cost for a plaintiff to recover from an injury in an accident.

This excess has been estimated at something like $3 billion a year in Louisiana. Which is an awful lot of money in a state of about 4.5 million people. And it does affect insurance rates.

Which is why a huge coalition of business interests in the state – LABI, NFIB, the homebuilders, the loggers, the truckers, the builders and contractors, the insurance companies, obviously, and a goodly number of others – came out forcefully for the bill when it moved through the legislature and are now demanding that Landry sign it.


These happen to be all the people who have been backing Republicans – Landry included – in Louisiana political races for the last couple of decades, if not more.

So he’s got some problems.

One of the things Seabaugh has said, and he’s right about this, is that in politics you cannot avoid making people angry. The longer you’re in office the more times you will do that. The road to success is (1) making the same people angry over and over again and (2) making sure those people aren’t the majority.

What you can’t do is make new people angry who are your supporters.

And if Landry vetoes HB 423 that’s the risk he runs.

The way Seabaugh talked on Griffon’s show, it comes off like he’s splitting the sheet with the governor. If it was just Seabaugh, Team Landry could write that off as a necessary, if unfortunate, loss.

But this is not just an Alan Seabaugh problem.

After all, when HB 423 first came out of the House, it passed on an 88-10 vote. Then when it came out of the Senate, the vote was 25-14. That contained some amendments, which knocked the House concurrence vote down to 68-25.

But those are still numbers knocking on the door of a veto-proof majority. There are more than enough House votes to override a veto on HB 423, and if one more Senator would agree to flip there could be an override.

Are his promises to the trial lawyers enough to risk being overridden by a Republican legislature?

Or can Landry profess his worry about a potential override as a reason not to veto the bill?

Or does he veto it and silently let it be known that if there is an override he wouldn’t squawk too loudly about it?

The third possibility is where the real 3-D chess game would be afoot, because Landry would then credibly declare that he’d done all he could for the plaintiff lawyers but the will of the people is the will of the people and that’s that.

But if he vetoes that bill, and the veto sustains, Jeff Landry then becomes the Republican governor the business groups can’t trust.

Not to mention he shakes the trust Seabaugh and lots of other members of the Louisiana Freedom Caucus, plus lots of pro-business legislators, have in him. And he’ll be doing it amid news that the state’s economy is not progressing at present, when Louisiana desperately needs a big jump in economic activity given the John Bel Edwards sales taxes rolling off the books next year (which paradoxically will make for a nice economic accelerant but one which will create a “fiscal cliff” that can only be alleviated through budget cuts the Legislature really didn’t have the stomach for this year). Not to mention he’ll be breaking that trust just as he’s trying to reform the state’s tax code to end our onerous state income tax which puts us in an uncompetitive position with Texas, Florida, and Tennessee, not to mention Mississippi and Arkansas who are phasing out their income taxes.

Landry can’t afford to veto that bill. It’s a real shame he’s even considering vetoing it. He might find that making a deal with trial lawyers like Gordon McKernan to get elected turns out to be a mistake that greatly hamstrings his ability to govern successfully.



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