Tort reform bill headed to governor

By Catherine Hunt / LSU Manship School News Service

Photo by Elizabeth Garner / LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — The House voted 72-28 Friday to pass a bill that aims to lower car insurance rates in Louisiana by limiting damage suits and awards to people injured in car accidents.

The bill by Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, targets tort laws that Republicans say make it too easy to sue and claim damages after a car accident.

The Senate also has passed the bill, and it will go next to Gov. John Bel Edwards. He supported an alternative approach to lowering insurance rates and has said he might veto the bill.

Legislative leaders were negotiating Friday with his aides about the terms of the bill, which passed both chambers by large enough margins that the Republicans could override a veto. The legislative session ends on Monday, and the issue could stretch into a special session scheduled to start immediately afterward.

Louisiana drivers pay the second highest auto insurance premiums in the country after Michigan, and Republicans and the business lobby blame the state’s tort laws and legal climate.

Talbot’s bill focuses on four key components. The bill would decrease the monetary threshold for an injury claim to be decided by a jury rather than a judge. It would prohibit plaintiffs from suing insurance companies directly and increase the time parties have to file lawsuits to encourage settling out of court. It also would prohibit using evidence of a plaintiff receiving reimbursements for healthcare costs from sources besides the defendant.

Supporters of the bill say that judges, who are elected, receive major donations from plaintiff’s lawyers and are more likely than juries to award significant damages. They also say that Louisiana is one of the few states where injured people can sue insurance companies directly. Changing these laws would encourage more insurance companies to write policies here, they say, increasing competition and lowering rates.

The bill also would allow juries to hear whether someone injured in an accident was wearing a seatbelt or not. Introducing such evidence is not currently allowed under Louisiana law.

Republicans say that these changes would decrease insurance premiums for private vehicles by at least 10 percent and possibly up to 25 percent in some cases. However, if an insurance company can prove that a 10 percent reduction would lead to insolvency, it could be exempt from lowering its rates.