Is tort reform coming?

By Catherine Hunt / LSU Manship School News Service

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, left, State Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, right. Photo by Elizabeth Garner/LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — The biggest insurance companies, including State Farm, Allstate and GEICO, have announced temporary premium cuts and rebates of 15 to 25 percent for auto insurance customers in Louisiana since the coronavirus has kept drivers off the roads.

The savings are a welcome relief for the state’s roughly 3 million insured drivers, who together pay the second-highest premiums in the country, following only Michigan residents. And Republicans in the state Legislature say they are looking for solutions that could permanently reduce car insurance rates through “tort reform,” changes that could reduce the number of lawsuits filed over accidents and the size of some of the damage awards.

“I know that insurance companies have given rebates because less people are driving, but we’re still the second highest in the country, and that’s not going to change,” said Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge. “I think there is more of a need for this kind legislation now than before because of the coronavirus.”

The legislative session convened March 9, the same day that Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. The session was suspended a week later, and lawmakers hope to return to the Capitol in May to pass a new budget. They also would like to consider economic relief measures, either then or in a special session later this year, and that could include tort reform.

Republicans have long pushed for such changes. Talbot, who now chairs the Senate Insurance Committee, sponsored a bill last year that passed the Republican-controlled House. But it failed in a Senate committee amid questions by Democrats and other critics about whether the changes really would lower premiums and be fair to people injured in car wrecks.

Louisiana’s rate of car accidents is on par with the rest of the country, but the rate of bodily injury claims is nearly double the national average. Talbot blames the state’s legal climate, contending that “there are things in our tort system that make us very unique to the rest of the country.”

“I think the data proves that those things are creating an environment where these bodily injury claims are double the national average and causing premiums to go up and insurance companies to leave,” he said.

Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon testified last April that changing the tort laws could reduce auto premiums, possibly by as much as 10 to 15 percent.

Democratic lawmakers and the trial lawyers who represent people injured in car wrecks are skeptical of Talbot’s tort reform bill. They say that there is not enough evidence to guarantee that the changes would result in lower premiums. Some say that the rates are high because up to 15 percent of Louisiana drivers do not have car insurance, and insured drivers end up paying more to compen