Tort reform passes Senate panel
By Catherine Hunt / LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — House and Senate committees passed more legislation Wednesday aimed at lowering car insurance rates in Louisiana by limiting damage lawsuits.
Louisiana has the second highest auto insurance rates in the country after Michigan, and lawmakers have focused on lowering these rates during the regular and special legislative sessions.
A major bill by Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, addressed several components of Louisiana’s tort laws that Republicans say lead to high rates. His bill was vetoed by Gov. John Bel Edwards Friday.
The Republicans could still try to override the veto, but they also are trying to pass possible replacement bills before the special session ends July 1.
The House Civil Law and Procedure Committee passed several bills that mirrored Talbot’s in changing areas of current tort law they say will reduce premiums.
Talbot’s bill would have decreased the monetary amount an injury has to be worth to be decided by a jury rather than a judge; prohibited plaintiffs from suing insurance companies directly; increased the time parties have to file lawsuits to encourage settling out of court; and prohibited using evidence of a plaintiff receiving payment from sources besides the defendant.
His bill also would have allowed juries and judges to hear whether someone was wearing a seatbelt at the time of an accident.
Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said these changes could result in premium reductions of at least 10 percent. However, companies could be excused from reducing rates if they can prove that doing so would lead to insolvency.
Democrats say that none of the bills guarantee rate reductions and that they make it harder for injured people to get the payments they deserve.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, sponsored three resolutions that address three portions of Talbot’s bill. His resolutions would repeal the current seatbelt rule, prohibit suing insurance companies directly and remove the monetary requirement needed for juries to hear a case.
The main difference, however, is that Seabaugh filed resolutions instead of bills. Resolutions are veto-proof and would have to be renewed by the Legislature every year, unless a bill that does the same thing is signed into law by Edwards. The resolutions, if successful, would take effect immediately rather than start on a certain date in the future like Talbot’s bill.
Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite, said having the law take effect immediately was like “changing the rules in the middle of the game.”
Some lawmakers opposed this strategy, and Rep. Gregory Miller, R-Norco, told Seabaugh that trying to suspend parts of the law by resolution is like “bringing a suicide vest” to the committee hearing.
“I would prefer a bill to get signed and quit having to do this, but when (Edwards) is going to veto the bill, this is one of the only bullets left in the gun,” Seabaugh said.
All three of Seabaugh’s resolutions passed, and Sen. Fred Mills, R-Minden, followed his lead and filed three identical resolutions on the Senate side. His resolutions also passed.
A bill by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, also would repeal the current seatbelt rule in language nearly identical to the other bills. The bill passed 10-4.
Senate Judiciary A passed a bill by Speaker of the House Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, that takes a similar approach to Talbot’s bill, but with some changes. His original bill did not contain as specific wording, but the committee amended it to be nearly the same as Talbot’s bill when it left the Senate. The Senate approved Talbot’s bill with enough votes to override a veto.
After passing Schexnayder’s bill, the committee deferred a bill by Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, that was nearly identical to Talbot’s. Lawmakers said their goal was to pass one piece of legislation from the Senate to avoid having slightly different bills competing.
It is unclear if lawmakers will attempt to override Edwards’ veto of Talbot’s bill, or hope one of the other bills or resolutions passed today will have more success in the next two weeks.