BR.budgetbill.062720 297.jpg

Bossier City Republican Sen. Barrow Peacock, who chairs the Senate Judiciary A committee, answers questions Friday, June 26, 2020, in the Senate Chamber.

Though a Senate panel wanted only one “tort reform” bill, the committee Friday advanced a second measure along with three House-passed nuclear options that would only go into effect if a measure doesn’t pass or is vetoed.

“We’ve all got kind of tired of this tort reform business,” said Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, about his House Bill 66. “This is a compromise. That’s why I’m here. I want to move the ball.”

The Senate Judiciary A committee voted 4-1 to advance the legislation to full Senate, which already has approved legislation by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales. Schexnayder’s House Bill 57 is in conference committee where three representatives and three senators are working out an agreement on the final wording.

Members of the business and insurance communities claim the reason for Louisiana’s high automobile insurance rates is the state’s litigious nature and lower policy prices would only happen with a clamp down on the way Louisiana resolves injury claims in court.

Nelson’s measure addresses issues that have led to widespread opposition among the judges, lawyers and healthcare providers, who point out absolutely no evidence has been presented that policy prices will go down once it is harder for individuals to use the courts to receive proper compensation for injuries they received in car wrecks that were not their fault.

HB66 includes provisions that would require auto insurance rates to drop 15% in four years or all the changes to civil trial processes and evidence procedures would return to the way it is now.

“It’s a bill where the insurance companies and Sen. Luneau agree that they don’t like it and I think that speaks for itself,” said Nelson, referring to Jay Luneau, the Senate’s most eloquent opponent of the efforts. An Alexandria Democrat, Luneau is a lawyer representing people who have been injured in car wrecks.

“What if we’re mildly successful and not wildly successful and we get a 14 percent rate reduction?” asked Kevin Cunningham, a lobbyist representing property and casualty insurers. He said if the proposed legal changes revert back to the way they are now, insurance rates will go back up when insurance companies “couldn’t hit a threshold that was frankly arbitrarily set.”

“This is not going to foster settlements and mediation,” said Luneau, adding that settlements usually come after a realistic trial date is set. The provisions being will slow the setting of trials and delay resolution of claims.

The business and insurance communities spent millions electing 100, primarily, Republican representatives and senators, many of whom came to Baton Rouge with the sole purpose of changing the court system in the name of lowering auto insurance rates. 

Thirty-one members of the House and Senate, primarily Democrats, received about $110,000 in direct contributions from legal community PACs.

Republican Sen. Heather Cloud, whose Turkey Creek trucking firm pays high insurance rates, said a lot of Nelson’s bill was disagreeable.

“But I like the other things, Cloud said. “Everybody is going to have to hurt a little bit. I’m okay with that.”

She also voiced frustration that lawmakers are so intransigent.

“The fact of the matter is this body cannot agree on legislative instruments, legislative measures to bring a remedy,” Cloud said.

The Senate panel then approved on a party line vote, three resolutions now being called the “nuclear options.” House Concurrent Resolutions 18, 19, and 20 would suspend specific laws that the tort reform movement is seeking to alter, if Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoes Speaker Schexnayder’s measure or if House Bill 57 does not win final approval before adjournment on Tuesday.

In addition to constitutional questions raised at nullifying the executive’s right to veto, judges from city and state district courts say an abrupt dropping of the laws would cause chaos.

The House-passed resolutions now are sitting on the full Senate’s agenda.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.