Legislators try again on legal changes

Republicans who have buyer’s remorse about changes they just approved to the state’s legal system began their do-over Tuesday, while also advancing some backup bills in case the one they already approved gets vetoed.

Senate Bill 418 by River Ridge Republican Sen. Kirk Talbot was the top priority not related to COVID-19 for many Republicans and business lobbyists. It made several changes to the state’s legal system that supporters argued would lead to fewer frivolous lawsuits after car crashes, reducing costs for insurers and ultimately leading to lower auto insurance rates.

But the author admitted the bill did not guarantee lower rates. Skeptics argued the bill would tilt the scales of justice in favor of big insurance companies at the expense of average plaintiffs.

One of the bill’s goals was to limit the amount of money plaintiffs could receive to what they actually paid in medical bills, rather than the “sticker price” of the procedure. Lawmakers approved a last-minute addition to allow plaintiffs to also collect health insurance premiums paid before the accident, which was described as a way to ensure plaintiffs are truly made whole and not penalized for having insurance.

But that provision was mistakenly worded in a way that could lead to large settlements for very minor injuries, lawmakers said. So on Tuesday, the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee advanced measures that would strip out that language if the bill becomes law. Gov. John Bel Edwards has not said whether he will sign or veto Senate Bill 418.

The committee also advanced House Bill 44 by Chalmette Republican Rep. Ray Garofalo, which replicates what was in Senate Bill 418 before it went through the legislative process. It also allows for six-person juries rather than 12-person juries for civil trials, which would reduce the potential time and expense.

As he has in prior discussions, Judge Bob Morrison testified that reducing the amount of money at stake that guarantees the right to a jury trial will lead to an increased burden on the court system. Supporters of the changes, noting the state’s jury trial threshold is the highest in the nation by far, say there is no evidence the courts will be overburdened.

“My study is based on my time on the bench,” Morrison said.

Legislators also advanced measures with similar goals to Talbot’s bill but with different details. House Bill 57 by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder would set the jury trial threshold at $10,000, rather than $5,000 as in Talbot’s original bill and Garofalo’s current one.

Louisiana legislators began a special session immediately after their pandemic-shortened regular session ended June 1 without a state budget. Lawmakers are constitutionally required to approve spending bills before the next fiscal year begins July 1.

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