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At the witness table left, Judge Glenn Ansardi with the 24th JDC answers questions as the Senate Judiciary A Committee takes up tort reform with HB57 Wednesday June 17, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

With only five days left in the special session and still no bill aimed at lowering auto insurance rates has won final approval. But, a Senate committee is doing belts and suspenders to get some instrument to the governor’s desk before the special session ends at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

“You’ve seen us go round and round,” said Republican Sen. Heather Cloud, who added that she wanted to return to her home in Turkey Creek with some sort of tort reform measure.

Bills stalled last year. Gov. John Bel Edwards earlier this month vetoed one measure that included what both sides agreed was a fatal flaw in the wording. Five different measures made to the House floor. Three made it to the Senate.

Furthest along in the process is House Bill 57, by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, which passed both chambers in slightly different forms leaving representatives and senators to negotiate the final wording.

But Schexnayder’s is only the latest measure that supporters call “tort reform” and say will lower auto insurance rates by changing how Louisiana conducts injury trials. Opponents counter the proposals would give insurance companies all the cards in paying car wreck injury claims and limit injured victims options for going to court to seek recompense.

A key problem for supporters of dramatically changing how Louisiana conducts trials is that Schexnayder removed from his bill the concept of “collateral source.” Supporters want Louisiana to be one of the only states in the nation to pass a law limiting plaintiffs to what they paid for the injuries received, rather than what doctors charged.

“Collateral source” is a common law concept based on a 166-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that articulated a dual purpose for civil lawsuits: one to punish the person responsible for causing an injury to another and secondly to make the responsible party compensate the injured party. The high court, and subsequent court rulings over the years, have held that restricting recovery of an injured party with foresight enough to purchase a healthcare insurance actually benefits the defendant driver and his insurance company.

On Thursday, Senate Judiciary A committee advanced without objection another sweeping tort reform measure, House Bill 44, but only after stripping everything out but the requirement that injured parties only receive recompense for what they paid their own physicians, who usually contract a lower amount with health insurance, along with prepays and deductibles, plus what is owed to treaters outside the insurance company’s network.

State Rep. Ray Garolfalo, R-Chalmette and sponsor of HB44, said the language was acceptable to healthcare insurance and providers whose opposition to a “collateral source” law led to the concept being removed from Schexnayder’s bill.

Judiciary A Chair Barrow Peacock, R-Bossier City, said he planned to consider Friday yet another tort reform measure, House Bill 66, which is being pitched by its sponsor, Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, as a compromise. Baton Rouge Democratic Sen. Cleo Fields and Covington Republican Sen. Patrick McMath, both members of the Jud A committee, said they could support HB66. The legislation includes a sunset provision that would end the legal changes if auto insurance policy prices don’t fall by at least 15%.

The panel also will take up three House-passed dynamite resolutions that say should the governor veto or the legislature fail to finally pass HB57, the process and evidentiary laws that supporters had hoped to change in these tort reform bills would be suspended until August 2021. In addition to likely launching a constitutional challenge, judges from state district and city courts say such an abrupt and temporary suspension would throw their dockets into chaos and lead to a dramatic slowdown in resolutions to these cases.

The full Senate would need to approve the three House measures – House Concurrent Resolutions 18, 19 and 20 – for them to take effect, but that’s not a given. Senate considered three nearly identical resolutions on Wednesday night, passing only one measure by two votes after a fractious floor debate. The other two were set aside for the time being.

The business and insurance communities have made changes to the state legal system their highest priority over the past few years. They brought the issue up a couple of times during the gubernatorial campaign last fall and pushed to make tort reform the cornerstone of legislative campaigns. One hundred of the Louisiana Legislature’s 144 members, mostly the Republicans, received about $508,000 in campaign contributions directly from the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry and Insurance industry PACs that pushed the bill. Thirty-one members of the House and Senate, mostly Democratic, received about $110,000 in direct contributions from legal community political action committees that opposed the measure.

The Legislature called itself into special session a minute after the regular session adjourned on June 1. The special session is over at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

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