Tuesday was tort reform day at the State Capitol and a Senate committee rejected two bills then sidelined a third.

All were promoted as ways that could, eventually, lower auto insurance prices in Louisiana. But the legislation also would dramatically change the way courts handle lawsuits stemming from injuries in car crashes.

In the undercard event, Senate Judiciary A Committee set aside two measures that would allow a judge, outside the hearing of the jury, decide whether to consider if the injured plaintiff was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident.

Then in the main event, the Senate panel debated for three hours before sending a sweeping overhaul bill to the fiscal office to figure out how much it would all cost. The referral was a move that supporters of the Omnibus Premium Reduction Act of 2019 say could very well end the legislation for this session, which ends June 6.

“If you want to kill the bill just kill it,” state Rep. Kirk Talbot, the River Ridge Republican who is sponsoring House Bill 372. The measure passed the House April 23 one vote shy of a two-thirds majority. Widely supported by the insurance industry for four key changes in how courts handle car wreck cases, Talbot says his bill would increase the incentive to negotiate settlements rather than go to trial. That would go a long way towards lowering insurance company costs, which should translate to lower auto insurance rates.

Louisiana drivers pay the second most expensive auto insurance in the country.

Opponents counter that HB372 amounts to a bucket-list of long-sought changes that would keep people injured accidents from being able to collect what’s owed them.

After hearing testimony from judges, lawyers and prosecutors about the impact of lowering the amount necessary to allow a jury to decide the case, Talbot offered to jettison the jury threshold part of his bill in order to get the legislation straight to the Senate floor.

“Everybody understands what’s going on,” Mandeville Republican Sen. Jack Donahue said of his colleagues’ efforts to ask the Legislative Fiscal Office to estimate how much the legislation would cost taxpayers. That could take a week and if the amount is over $100,000, then HB372 would have to be heard by the Senate Finance Committee before, if approved, it goes to the Senate floor. Then, if approved, the Senate version would return to the House.

“And then it would go into the trash,” Donahue said, because there’s not enough time the roughly four weeks remaining in the session. It’s a way nobody would have to vote on an issue that addresses high insurance prices.

Donahue offered to strip out the jury threshold as requested by Talbot but was refused by the other members of the panel.

Democratic Sen. Jay Luneau, of Alexandria, said the committee heard a lot of testimony about how lowering the jury threshold from $50,000 to $5,000 would clog the courts with cases seeking an expensive jury trial. “

“This is a way to find out what this is going to cost,” Luneau said. “We can wait one more week.”

Lowering the jury threshold will send the cases once handled by city courts, which can’t hold jury trials, to the state district courts whose dockets are already crowded, said 21st Judicial District Court Judge Robert Morrison III, of Livingston.

Plaquemines Parish District Attorney Charles J. Ballay said his worry is that unlike the cities, district judges in rural communities handle all civil, family and criminal issues. Filling the judges’ dockets with jury trials for car wrecks will limit the number of dates available to adjudicate criminal cases.

“I have problem with the unpredictability of what the lower jury threshold will do,” said Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Piper Griffin. “Our issue is case management and docket control.”

In addition to reducing the jury trial threshold from $50,000 to $5,000, Talbot’s measure would increase the time that victims of crashes have to file a lawsuit from one year to two; take away the ability to sue the insurance company directly; plus allow judges and juries to review claimed medical costs with the possibility of discounting any treatments the injured person’s insurance provided.

The bill also includes a provision that if costs go down, the Department of Insurance would push insurance companies to lower their rates.

But the higher costs of insurance are causing problems with businesses.

Josh McAllister, a logger from Winnfield, said the insurance for logging trucks have increased 300 percent in the past three years. Where a few years ago several insurance companies, now only two are doing business now.

“Whatever you do, you have to do something,” McAllister implored the panel.

Greg Morrison, of the Louisiana Motor Transport Association, said the state’s legal systems has created “a subculture in the legal community and its created its own little economy,” he said. “We’re at the edge of the cliff.”


Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.