Right off the bat, the winner of Louisiana’s commissioner of insurance race Oct. 22 likely will face a spirited contest between insurers and lawyers over whether to further limit access to the state’s courts for car wreck victims.
Insurers argue that Louisiana’s civil courts system, where monetary damages for injuries are sought, has skewed too far in favor of the people who file lawsuits, called plaintiffs. Groups representing insurers and businesses say that only more tort reform will lower prices for automobile insurance in Louisiana.
The lawyers who represent plaintiffs counter that making the collection of compensation for injuries more difficult does not guarantee lower insurance premiums.
The commissioner of insurance heads the state department that regulates insurance companies and oversees policy pricing decisions. Both candidates for commissioner - incumbent Jim Donelon and challenger Donald C. Hodge - say they expect to play a lead role in the tort reform battle when the Louisiana Legislature convenes on March 12 for its annual regular session.
Both Donelon and Hodge agree that lawsuits play a role in the high cost of motor vehicle insurance. And, both say the state needs to move cautiously when changing how accident victims can seek compensation in court.
But that’s where their agreement seems to end.
“Anything that would decrease the number of lawsuits would be a good thing,” said Donelon, the Republican who has been commissioner of insurance since 2006.
Hodge, the Democrat, said, “As a state, I don’t think we can put a limit on these minor injury automobile accident claims.”
Insure.com, a website that compares car insurance premiums, shows Louisiana has the most expensive auto insurance policies in the nation, averaging $2,511 annually in 2010. The next-highest state is Michigan with $2,098.29 annual average cost, which is 20 percent lower. The national average was $1,429, according to the survey.
Jeff Albright, president of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of Louisiana, said higher rates can be tracked to the state’s higher ratio between “bodily injury” and “property damage” claims. The treatment of injuries sustained in an accident - “bodily injury” - far exceed the cost of repairing a vehicle - “property damage.”
Louisiana files 45.9 “bodily injury” claims for every 100 “property damage” claims, according to the Insurance Research Council. Nationally, that number is 26 per 100 claims. Consequently, the higher ratio means insurance companies need to charge Louisiana drivers more to adequately cover their risks, Albright said.
Baton Rouge-based groups, such as the Coalition for Common Sense, which are funded by trade associations representing insurance companies and big businesses, point to the steady rise in automobile insurance rates in Louisiana and state: “Two of the main reasons for this are the loose nature of Louisiana’s laws and the litigious nature of our citizenry.”
State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, who is a lawyer representing victims in accidents, said a number of factors go into why Louisiana files so many lawsuits. One key reason is procedural: Louisiana plaintiffs have only one year to file a lawsuit. That’s not enough time to work out a settlement, he said. Other states allow two to three years for just that reason, he said.
Julie J. Baxter, a Baton Rouge lawyer who represents plaintiffs, said insurance companies cannot show a recognizable link between the so-called “tort reform” changes and the cost of insurance. Insurance rates are driven, in large part, by underwriting practices and the success the companies have in investing insurance premiums.
Donelon said the changes instituted by “tort reform” efforts in the 1980s and 1990s did lead to lower rates for automobile insurance. He said he believes that thoughtful changes in the next legislative session should lead to a more competitive situation that would lower policy rates.
Louisiana recently set higher minimums for liability coverage. Drivers can purchase more coverage at higher prices, but the minimum is necessary to be able to legally drive.
The state minimum had been $10,000 per person for bodily injuries, $20,000 for all injuries in the car, and $10,000 for property damage. The Louisiana Legislature recently increased those minimums to $15,000 per person, $30,000 for everyone in the car and $25,000 for property damage, additional coverage that increased the cost of policies.
“If you raise the minimums, you raise the rates,” said state Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, the Jennings Republican who is chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee.
Morrish said the legislative possibility he has been hearing is to lower the jury trial threshold. If the damages being sought by a plaintiff are less than $50,000, then a judge can decide the case and set the award. Lowering the threshold would allow juries to decide more lawsuits.
Some believe that juries award less damages than a judge, said Morrish, echoing the same opinions voiced by insurance officials and plaintiffs’ lawyers alike.
Hodge said more jury trials would delay an already slow process and further favor the better-financed insurance companies. “The question we need to ask is: Is that fair?” said Hodge.