There are forces influencing the powerful in government that like things the way they are. This is why obvious, common-sense answers to our problems are often ignored by politicians. Many are more loyal to their deep-pocketed donors than their constituents.
For example, if someone not wearing their seat belt gets injured in a car wreck and then sues, the court can’t consider as evidence the role not wearing the seat belt played in causing the injuries. Changing the seat belt disclosure law seems like an easy, no-brainer, first step fix in reducing Louisiana’s sky-high auto-insurance rates.
So, why no change? Last year, State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican, introduced a bill ridding the state of the seat belt gag law. Her bill would allow as evidence the role not wearing a seat belt played in the litigant’s injuries. The bill never made it to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk. Then Senate President and Republican in name only John Alario stacked the Senate Judiciary Committee with trial lawyers guaranteeing tort reform legislation died in committee. This saved Edwards the embarrassment of having to veto a bill that would have lowered insurance premiums for so many. Hewitt has filed a similar seat belt disclosure bill again for this year.
Another example of a common-sense solution to Louisiana’s high auto-insurance premiums is lowering the threshold for jury trials in the state. Currently, for either party to request a civil trial before a jury, the lawsuit must be for the amount of at least $50,000. Rep. Raymond Garofalo, a Chalmette Republican, recently filed a bill lowering that threshold to $5,000. The state with the next highest threshold is 15,000. Thirty-six states have a zero threshold for jury trials.
Louisiana’s high jury threshold allows personal injury lawyers to shop for judges known for generous judgments. Judges whose campaign they may have financially supported. They still get to sue for tens of thousands and maintain that home-field advantage with a friendly judge that they are not guaranteed with a jury. If the threshold were lowered to $5,000, the billboard lawyers would be forced to keep their lawsuits under $5,000 to avoid a jury.
Louisiana’s has the second-highest insurance premiums in the country. The average yearly cost to insure a car in New Orleans is around $4,000 per year and in Baton Rouge it’s a little less than that. Those premiums are close to twice as high as the national average. Imagine being a single mom and having to come up with 4-grand a year for car insurance.
Premiums are especially high for businesses operating commercial vehicles. This is one of the reasons Louisiana’s economy has not kept up with the rest of the nation. Our state’s well-known reputation as a judicial hellhole is well-deserved.
It’s clear personal injury lawyers have more clout than the rest of us with those running our state. But it’s unfair to put this all on Edwards. The governor could very well bend to public pressure to lower insurance premiums and sign a tort reform bill if one were ever to make it to his desk. Favoring his big-money attorney donors over Louisiana motorists doesn’t go well with his campaign slogan, “people over politics.” But the Republican-controlled legislature hasn’t sent Edwards any tort reform legislation. Alario is gone. Republicans are running out of excuses.
GOP leaders promise this year things are different, and they claim they’ll pass meaningful tort reform legislation. We’ll see. I didn’t sense a real passion for the issue during my recent conversation with newly elected Senate President Page Cortez. Cortez told me improving roads would lower insurance premiums. That has to be music to the ears of billboard lawyers. Although in defense of Cortez, his committee assignments have been promising and seem to indicate we could see tort reform legislation come out of the Senate.
In the House, Republican Clay Schexnayder has cut a deal with Edwards and Democrats to win his speakership. Did he promise to keep tort reform legislation off the governor’s desk? If tort reform doesn’t make it to the governor this year, we’ll know why. Enough Republicans like things just the way they are. High insurance premiums and all.
Email Dan Fagan at email@example.com.