The people who won lawsuits against the state didn’t share in last week’s fretting over whether they would get paid like those who worried about funding for TOPS, prosecutors, prisons and other vital government services.
Using some excess money found in the state budget, lawmakers back on May 29 agreed to pay $42 million and clear the slate of 110 outstanding final lawsuit judgments from across Louisiana — ranging from $2,000 to $3 million each.
The Office of Risk Management already has begun the paperwork necessary for the Treasury Department to cut the checks.
Only the 2006 judgment, now worth more than $300 million, for claims that the state’s design of Interstate 12 caused flooding in Tangipahoa Parish, remains unpaid. Louisiana can’t afford it.
A few cases involved contract disputes. Most of the paid judgments are against the Department of Transportation & Development after courts found that bad roads contributed to killing and maiming drivers.
Those judgments include $3 million for a man whose truck hydroplaned on water that accumulated on La. Hwy. 1 near Natchitoches and $1.8 million for the family of man who died in a similar accident on Plaquemines Parish's La. Hwy 23 in August 2003. Two young women will receive $1 million because of maintenance problems on a La. Hwy. 308 curve caused their car to cross the center line. A woman in Baton Rouge lost control in 2004 when her car was hit by a low hanging wire that fell and will receive the $1.3 million a jury awarded her in February 2015.
The family of Elsie Bizette "Jean" Boudreaux and her mother, Thelma Bizette — they died in December 2011 — will receive $1 million. The daughters of Ann Hope Browne, sister of former LSU football coach Les Miles, who was killed in April 2011, will receive $500,000.
Both fatal accidents were at the Sugar Plantation Parkway intersection with four-lane La. Hwy. 1 near Addis in West Baton Rouge Parish.
Addis Mayor Carol Bourgeois and several elected officials had requested DOTD to install a traffic light to control the oddly shaped intersection. Several community meetings were held, petitions were signed, and Facebook pages were opened demanding a “Red Light for Sugarmill,” the name of the neighborhood.
But DOTD had refused, saying the statistics didn’t warrant installing a $500,000 stop light.
The two separate lawsuits uncovered a failure in the system DOTD used to count the accidents, which led the agency’s refusal to correct the intersection. DOTD had only two reports of collisions when there 31 crash reports filed, according appellate court opinions.
Juries in 2015 found DOTD partially responsible for causing both fatal accidents. Those decisions were confirmed by appellate courts in 2016 and the judgments were made final.
Frank Tomeny III, the Baton Rouge lawyer, who represented the families, said all lawsuits take time from filing to payment. But suing the state adds another hurdle.
“I knew they (legislators) eventually pay them. It effects the state’s bond rating,” Tomeny said. “I didn’t know it would take this many years,”
Because of the constitutional separation of powers doctrine, state law requires any judgment the judiciary orders an executive branch agency to pay to be approved – and the money appropriated for the expense – by the state Legislature. And the federal government has ruled that Louisiana couldn’t use road money to pay premiums for insurance policies that would have picked up those debt. Insurance covers many other legal claims against the state. That’s why the list of lawsuit judgments skew so heavily to road hazard cases against DOTD.
Short on funds, the Legislature flat hasn’t approved paying any of the court-ordered judgments since the 2013 session, when $12 million was paid, during the administration of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Even in cases where the state’s lawyers agreed to settle the case, rather than go to trial, weren’t paid until this year.
The state’s attorneys use the requirement of legislative approval to press injured litigants to settle their lawsuits, said Kenneth Hooks, a Baton Rouge attorney representing Pamela Adams. The situation is difficult to explain to clients, particularly those like Adams who paid bills out of pocket while waiting on legislators to act, he added.
Adams suffered a brain injury when her car hit a five-inch drop off and she lost control. She had to pay for much of her own care, such as an in-home aide to help her function.
“She had to borrow money from the bank. She’ll now be able to pay that back, but she had to pay interest on those loans, which she won’t get repaid for,” Hooks said. “We are beyond grateful to the Edwards administration and this Legislature.”
The issue was always money, there was never any thought that the state didn’t owe the judgments, particularly after most of the lawsuits went from jury verdicts through the appellate system, said Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Franklin Foil. Because he’s a lawyer and vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, he fielded a lot of calls from attorneys and from lobbyists representing lawyers asking for help.
There’s no official procedure, but in past years representatives from the jurisdiction where the court issued final judgment would file a bill asking for payment. The best Foil could do was help arrange, in some cases, representatives to handle that legislation.
And then, the state’s fiscal analysts discovered some excess money that hadn’t been spent in the state budget, Foil said. Diverting that money during the regular session would allow the state to pay off those judgments. Waiting for the end of the fiscal year on June 30, those same dollars would have been declared “surplus” and thus only available for paying for specific debts, which doesn’t include paying court judgments, he said.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, amended all the judgments into a bill that used the excess money, before it was declared surplus, to pay off the judgments. House Bill 874 cleared the Legislature with only one no vote. Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the measure into law on May 29.
“We caught up on most the unpaid ones, at least the ones that legislators had filed bills for to be paid,” Foil said.