BATON ROUGE, La. (The Center Square/The Livingston Parish News) – The Louisiana House of Representatives on Monday approved two bills that would make sweeping changes to how the state’s court system handles automobile accident claims.
The measures are much like Senate Bill 418, which legislators approved during the regular session only to have it vetoed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Supporters, generally Republicans and business lobbyists, say the changes could lead to cheaper auto insurance. Skeptics, most of whom are Democrats, say they don’t think that will happen, arguing the proposals would give insurers and other big companies an unfair advantage over individual plaintiffs.
House Bill 44 by Rep. Raymond Garofalo, a Chalmette Republican, is very similar to the original version of Senate Bill 418. It would lower the amount of money at stake that would trigger the right to a civil jury trial from $50,000, by far the highest such threshold in the nation, to $5,000.
For cases worth between $5,000 and $35,000, the bill calls for a six-person jury in which five jurors must concur to reach a verdict. Having a smaller jury would save time and money compared to one with 12 members.
The bill also would allow a plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat belt to be admissible in court. Plaintiffs would retain the ability to sue an insurance company directly, which some supporters of the changes would prefer to eliminate.
It limits the amount of money a plaintiff could collect in medical damages to the amount actually paid for a procedure, rather than its “sticker price.” And in one change supported by Democrats, it would extend the amount of time an allegedly injured party would have to file suit from one year to two, which is meant to give the parties more time to work out an agreement and avoid litigation.
Insurers would be required to reduce their rates at least 10 percent unless they can convince the state’s insurance commissioner that they can’t afford to, a caveat Democrats portray as a huge loophole. Commissioner of Insurance Jim Donelon, a Republican who supports the changes, says he would only allow companies to opt out if the reduction would make them insolvent.
Garofalo did not take questions on his bill, leaving Democrats to do much of the talking.
“It seems like ‘Groundhog Day,’” said Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite, referring to a film where the main character played by Bill Murray relives the same day over and over.
Rep. Mandie Landry, a New Orleans Democrat, said no one from the insurance industry has testified the changes would lead to lower rates, echoing a critique Edwards made when explaining his veto of Senate Bill 418. She also argued the bill is unconstitutional because it has multiple objectives.
Representatives voted 74-24 to send House Bill 44 to the state Senate. That margin would be enough to override a potential veto, though that was also true of the first House vote on Senate Bill 418, which eventually fell short of a two-thirds margin on final passage.
Members spent even less time discussing House Bill 57 by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, which is similar to House Bill 44 but not as broad. The most obvious difference is the new jury trial threshold would be $10,000 rather than $5,000.
The bill also allows evidence about seat belt usage and medical expenses to be admissible in court, while providing for a process to transfer motor vehicle accident cases from municipal to district courts.
Members approved House Bill 57 by a 78-22 margin.
By David Jacobs | The Center Square