Legislators enter last day of session without budget or civil lawsuit agreements

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The Louisiana legislature wrapped up the second-to-last day of its special session Monday night without passing a state budget.

The session must end by 6 p.m. Tuesday. The state constitution requires passage of a balanced budget by the time the next fiscal year begins Wednesday.

It is not uncommon for state legislators to wait until a session’s closing moments to approve a new state budget. They failed to pass a budget during the pandemic-shortened regular session that ended June 1.

Lawmakers also have not come to an agreement about how to change the state’s civil legal system, which is this year’s top policy priority for business lobbyists and many Republicans. They argue the changes they have proposed to the state’s legal system would lead to a reduction in the state’s auto insurance rates, which are among the highest in the nation.

Skeptics say the proposed changes would cause the system to favor insurance companies over average citizens and would not lead to cheaper insurance.

The state Senate on Monday voted 30-8 in favor of House Bill 57 by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, but the House won’t take the bill up until Tuesday. Rep. John Stefanski said work remains to be done, which he portrayed as minor tweaks to clarify the bill’s language and not a “fatal flaw.”

House Bill 57 would reduce the amount of money at stake needed to trigger the right to a jury trial from $50,000, the highest in the nation by far, to $10,000. Sen. Ronnie Johns, a Lake Charles Republican, said business-friendly lawmakers have been trying to lower the state’s jury trial threshold at least since he joined the legislature in 1996.

Using baseball terms, Johns said the bill might not be a home run, but it is “a stand-up triple.”

Louisiana plaintiffs would retain the right to sue an insurer directly, which has been a point of contention. Some lawmakers argued that knowing an insurance company will pay the plaintiff’s damages makes juries more likely to side with plaintiffs.

But in most cases under House Bill 57, juries would never learn the insurer’s identity, though they would hear if the defendant who allegedly caused the injury had insurance at the opening and closing of the trial. The bill also allows courts to consider whether a plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat belt contributed to their injuries.

The bill does not address the “collateral source” issue. Other bills have sought to ensure plaintiffs are only compensated for medical damages either paid or owed, as opposed to the “sticker price” of a procedure, which might be much higher.

Waiting in the wings are three concurrent resolutions by Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican, which have been described as a possible nuclear option or “suicide vest” to induce Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to sign a civil lawsuit bill. The governor has no say in a concurrent resolution, which allows legislators to suspend a law with the same number of votes required to establish the law.

The resolutions would suspend for a year provisions regarding direct action against insurers, the jury trial threshold, and the seat belt “gag rule.” Some lawmakers say the suspensions would create chaos in the courts and might even lead to higher insurance rates, and it is unclear whether the measures would apply to pending cases or only new ones.

The House on Tuesday also is scheduled to discuss House Bill 66 by freshman Republican Rep. Richard Nelson. His bill is similar to the speaker’s bill but much broader. It addresses collateral source and includes elements that Democrats support, including a provision that calls for the changes to expire if they don’t lead to a 15 percent reduction in auto insurance rates.