House Bill 372

Baton Rouge lawyer Robert Kleinpeter testifies Monday, April 15, 2019, against House Bill 372, which limits lawsuits resulting from car wrecks as a way to lower auto insurance premiums.

If Louisiana were a wealthy state with high family incomes, maybe it wouldn’t be such a burden to be second in the nation in car insurance rates. But we are, and it is a challenge for working families that ought to be front and center for the Legislature, not a lame defense of today’s legal system by self-interested lawyers.

We’re No. 2, and we can’t afford that.

Lawmakers should help untangle the legal system that, uniquely in the United States, gives incentives for insurers to settle cases instead of fighting them out in court — and then pass on the costs of the settlements to consumers in premiums. Should it be that hard, when the threshold for jury trials in Louisiana is 28 times the national average?

The debate was joined over House Bill 372 by state Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, a three-pronged approach to the problem of sky-high insurance. It includes not only the important jury-threshold language but also other adjustments to the legal system long sought by conservatives seeking to lower Louisiana’s costs when a car wreck leads to a lawsuit.

It's a complicated bill —and perhaps not likely to pass in a Legislature dominated by many lawyers of both parties.

There are also arguments against Talbot’s procedural fixes. Among other things, judges worry that a slew of jury trials over injuries in car wrecks would cram up the courts. An alliance of judges and lawyer-legislators — who often want to be judges when they grow up — is a tough obstacle.

Even if some form of the bill passes the Legislature, Gov. John Bel Edwards, who's a staunch friend of the plaintiff bar, might veto it.

But if Talbot’s bill is defeated, it would put legislators — and perhaps, ultimately, the governor — on record as defending the status quo while families struggle with bigger bills than they can afford every six months for car insurance.

No one can argue that there are not other important factors in car insurance rates. Distracted driving is causing wrecks, and personal responsibility is an important part of the solution.

Many poor families, as Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon notes, are dazzled by the prospect of a payout of $25,000 promised by lawyers, who in today’s system just settle the cases and take a big cut. Donelon, though, can document that Louisiana’s litigation culture in car wrecks is out of control and out of line with other states.

And except for a few jurisdictions like New Orleans, there is precious little alternative to having a car for workers. The political and legal system should be focused on helping the families struggling with car insurance rates instead of protecting a system out of line with that in other states.

As it now stands, the lucky winners of the litigation bingo are the lawyers and a few plaintiffs, while consumers at large pay and pay and pay.