By Catherine Hunt | LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE–The House passed a potential compromise bill Tuesday aimed at winning support from Gov. John Bel Edwards, who vetoed an earlier effort that sought to lower car insurance rates by limiting injury lawsuits.
The bill, by Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, passed 82-9, with 21 Democrats voting for it. Nelson said he was trying to break the logjam on an issue that Republicans have billed as one of their biggest priorities during this legislative season.
In other action Tuesday, the House voted 82-17 to pass a bill that would prevent students and teachers who contracted infectious diseases, including COVID-19, from suing K-12 schools and colleges unless they can prove “grossly negligent or wanton or reckless misconduct.”
Earlier this month, Edwards vetoed a bill by Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge that had addressed several components of Louisiana’s tort laws that Republicans say lead to high auto insurance rates.
Republicans appear to be short of the votes needed to override the veto, so they are trying to pass replacement legislation before the special session ends July 1.
Like Talbot’s bill, Nelson’s would extend the time that parties have to file suits and would limit the amount of recoverable medical expenses and insurance premium payments. Nelson’s bill also would lower the monetary amount an injury has to be worth to be decided by a jury rather than a judge.
But unlike Talbot’s bill, it would reduce the default number of jurors to six from 12 to try to lessen the burden on courts and jurors. Judges expressed concerns that Talbot’s bill would overwhelm courts with jury trials and that rural areas could have trouble finding enough jurors for personal injury cases.
In another compromise, Nelson’s bill includes a sunset provision that would repeal the bill if rates do not decrease by at least 15% in three years. Democrats had issues with Talbot’s and other bills that did not mandate reductions, and Republicans denied their requests to include provisions that would repeal the legislation if it did not lower rates.
Talbot’s bill also would have prohibited suing insurance companies directly. Nelson’s bill would prohibit juries from seeing evidence of an insurance policy for purposes of establishing direct action against an insurance company.
His bill would prevent injured plaintiffs from recovering damages if their percentage of fault is greater than the combined percentage of fault of all other persons found to have contributed to the injury, death, or loss.
Unlike Talbot’s bill, Nelson’s bill would prohibit insurance companies from setting rates based on a driver’s gender if they are over the age of 25.
Democrats sponsored bills that would have tried to lower insurance rates by prohibiting insurance companies from determining rates based on age, gender, marital status and credit score, but faced opposition from Republicans. Edwards has said he supports this measure and that he believes “discriminatory practices” need to end in order to lower rates.
The House also passed three resolutions by Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, that would address some of the same components of Talbot’s bill.
The resolutions would repeal a rule that allows juries and judges to hear whether someone was wearing a seatbelt at the time of an accident.
They also would prohibit suing insurance companies directly and remove the monetary requirement needed for juries to hear a case.
The main difference is that 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.
Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite, said having the law take effect immediately was like “changing the rules in the middle of the game.”
“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 during a committee hearing.
Some lawmakers opposed his strategy, saying it is a tactic to go around the Democratic governor’s veto. Rep. Joseph Stagni, R-Kenner, called it a “political shakedown.”
“I’m embarrassed as a member of this body that we are using this methodology to make a point,” said Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans.
All three of Seabaugh’s resolutions now move to the Senate, where three identical resolutions by Sen. Robert Mills, R-Minden, also could be debated.
The bill to insulate K-12 schools and colleges from liability for COVID-19 infections was written by Rep. Buddy Mincey, R-Denham Springs. He said it was critical to allow schools to return to in-person classes without the fear of lawsuits.
More than 50,000 people in Louisiana have contracted the coronavirus, and cases are rising in several regions of the state. Some lawmakers opposed the bill, saying it could put students and teachers at risk.
“I’m just in favor of erring on the side of fighting for our children,” said Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans. “I think this legislation reduces the protection of our children for the benefit of our schools.”
A similar bill that protects businesses and government agencies from lawsuits regarding deaths or injuries related to the virus has been signed into law by Edwards.