With the special session nearing the end, the Louisiana Senate passed Monday possible compromise legislation aimed at lowering auto insurance rates by limiting lawsuit options in state district courts for people injured in car wrecks.
House Bill 66, sponsored by state Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, advanced on a vote of 35-to-3, with seven Democrats voting in support. The House last week passed Nelson’s measure, 82-9, with 21 Democrats voting for it. The legislation returns for the House to consider amendments added in the Senate.
The special session, which began minutes after the regular session adjourned June 1, must end by 6 p.m. Tuesday.
HB66 is one of several bills and resolutions that GOP lawmakers have passed that could serve as substitutes for the bill sponsored by River Ridge Republican Sen. Kirk Talbot, which passed both chambers during the regular session, but was vetoed earlier this month for lacking compromise or proof that rates would fall. Talbot’s plan also lost backing from both sides when a last minute addition included wording that mistakenly created a windfall for people with minor injuries.
Stephen Waguespack, head of the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry, told The Advocate/Times-Picayune his group is fine with either HB66 or House Bill 57, a similar measure by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales. Schexnayder’s HB57 has been in negotiation since last week.
Republicans haven’t been able to muster enough votes to override an Edwards’ veto, and have focused on passing replacement bills while negotiating with Democrats, who want guarantees that rates would go down and that accident victims would not be unfairly treated.
Into this milieu, Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, and Sen. Robert Mills, R-Minden, have filed three identical resolutions that would temporarily suspend the laws tort reform supporters want to alter. The resolutions only require a simple majority of both chambers and do not need the governor’s assent. The resolutions, if finally approved, would only take effect should Schexnayder’s measure not become law or be vetoed.
Like Talbot’s bill, Nelson’s would extend the time that parties have to file suits in hopes of encouraging parties to settle out of court. It would also limit the amount of recoverable medical expenses and insurance premium payments, and it would lower the monetary amount an injury has to be worth to be decided by a jury rather than a judge.
Unlike Talbot’s bill, it would reduce the default number of jurors to six from 12 to try to lessen the burden on courts and jurors. Judges expressed concerns that Talbot’s bill would overwhelm courts with jury trials and that rural areas could have trouble finding enough jurors for personal injury cases.
In another compromise, Nelson’s bill includes a mandatory rate reduction and a sunset provision that would repeal the law if rates did not decrease by at least 15% after three years. Democrats opposed Talbot’s bill because it did not mandate rate reductions, and Republicans refused to include language that would repeal the legislation if the changes did not result in lower premiums.
Unlike any other legislation on this issue, Nelson’s included comparative fault language that would prevent injured plaintiffs from recovering damages if they are found by courts or juries to have been more than half at fault for the injuries. Twenty-three states have comparative fault, said state Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington, who handled HB66 in the Senate Monday, and 14 states with low car insurance rates have the same provision.
Nelson’s bill also would prohibit insurance companies from setting rates based on a driver’s gender if they are over the age of 25.
Democrats sponsored bills that would have tried to lower insurance rates by prohibiting insurance companies from determining rates based on age, gender, marital status, and credit score, but faced opposition from Republicans. Edwards has said he supports these measures and that he believes “discriminatory practices” need to end in order to lower rates.
Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, authored several bills that would have prohibited these “discriminatory practices,” but his bills were killed in committee.
“This bill puts something bad for everybody, and it makes for a bad bill all around,” Luneau said of HB66, warning of last-minute additions that haven’t been vetted legislatively. He was one of the three votes against HB66.
Others spoke in support of the bill, saying the debate over insurance rates has lasted for too long with no real action.
“I’m a trial lawyer, but at the end of the day I want to end this debate about what we need to do to lower insurance rates,” said Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge. “I am supporting this bill because it does guarantee a savings.”
Republican state Sen. Heather Cloud, who because her Turkey Creek trucking firm has had such trouble finding moderately priced insurance has been an outspoken advocate for tort reform, said she hated a lot about Nelson’s HB66, but liked a lot of its provisions too. She supported the measure and urged her colleagues to get past their partisan intransigence on the issue.
“If we go home, whether we’re Republican or Democrat and we just become basically a casualty to this tug of war and we continue to allow the people of Louisiana, the families to suffer because none of us want to move, then shame on us,” Cloud said.
Democratic Sen. Karen Peterson, of New Orleans, added, “Let’s pass this bill, the governor signs it, and for the next four months let’s talk about something that’s actually going to move the needle.”