After an election season in which conservative Republicans made Louisiana's high car insurance rates a campaign issue, GOP lawmakers expect efforts to try to limit damages awarded in car wreck lawsuits to be front and center in the 2020 legislative session.
Business groups are pushing the "tort reform" proposals, saying Louisiana's legal climate encourages people in car accidents to sue insurance companies, driving up automobile insurance rates. They say if the state changes the rules for accessing civil courts and suing over injuries, that could help draw more companies to Louisiana, creating competition that will force down rates. Critics counter there's no proof such legal system changes would lower rates and the changes could keep people injured in car accidents from adequate compensation while ignoring other reasons insurance premiums are so high.
A Senate committee packed with attorneys killed a sweeping House-backed civil litigation system rewrite earlier this year, and the issue shifted to the fall elections. Business organizations and others made Louisiana's high car insurance rates a rallying cry in legislative races and the gubernatorial contest, saying Democrats and some Republicans sided too heavily with plaintiffs' attorneys.
Rep. Sherman Mack, an Albany lawyer who is leading contender to be House speaker in the upcoming term, described civil litigation changes as the "biggest topic you're going to hear most about in this next legislative session."
"We have to let the middle class and the public know that we are attempting as the leaders of this state to help them with these high insurance rates," Mack told a GOP luncheon crowd.
Louisiana's car insurance rates are the second-highest in the nation, averaging around $2,200 per year, according to Bankrate.com and other websites that track the auto insurance industry.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards was repeatedly slammed in the November election by his unsuccessful Republican challenger, Eddie Rispone, for being a "trial lawyer." Rispone framed Edwards as a roadblock to lower auto insurance rates because of his tight ties to personal injury attorneys.
As he readies for his second term, Edwards said he isn't "creating any red lines" about what sorts of lawsuit limits he would oppose. He said he's willing to negotiate with lawmakers about possible changes he could support ahead of the legislative session beginning in March.
"I know that there is some movement, some compromise that's possible," the governor said, without offering specifics.
Among the "tort reform" ideas being suggested are: requiring use of jury trials more frequently, so lawyers have to sell their cases for damages to more people than a single judge; placing caps on certain types of damages that can be awarded; forcing people who file auto accident lawsuits into pretrial negotiations; and increasing the time that accident victims have to file lawsuit to give both sides more time to work out a settlement.
Opponents of the various proposals argue the insurance industry refuses to promise rate reductions with the changes. They say other issues — such as poor road conditions, distracted driving, DWI rates and large numbers of uninsured drivers — are more damaging to the state's car insurance rates than lawsuits.
Speaking to the same Republican lunch audience as Mack, GOP Sen. Rick Ward, a lawyer from Port Allen, seemed skeptical the lawsuit limits would deliver the intended results of driving down insurance rates.
"We can certainly take a look at how we differ from other states, but the problem there is I think a lot of times ... the reason the general public doesn't trust us is because we go out and sell something, and then we pass what we sell and then it never materializes," Ward said. "So, if we all go run around the state and tell everybody that we're going to pass this and you're going to see your insurance rates reduced, what happens in two years whenever we passed it and their rates don't reduce?"