Lawmakers work to lower insurance

Image
Body

Louisiana lawmakers are beginning to file bills to be considered in the legislative session that begins March 9, including a measure that would reignite a contentious debate about the state’s legal climate.

Rep. Raymond Garofalo, a Chalmette Republican, has filed the “Omnibus Premium Reduction Act of 2020,” which appears to be modeled on a bill Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, filed last year. The bill seeks to make several changes to the state’s legal system that proponents say could lead to lower automobile insurance rates. Louisiana’s rates are among the highest in the nation, which insurers blame on expensive frivolous lawsuits.

The legislation would lower the amount of money that has to be at stake in a civil trial to guarantee the right to a jury to $5,000. The current threshold is $50,000, by far the highest in the nation.

Proponents of the change say the high threshold allows lawyers to “judge shop” for venues favorable to plaintiffs. Opponents note that there is no direct correlation between higher jury thresholds and higher rates and argue lowering the threshold would lead to more trials, increasing costs and clogging the court system.

Garofalo’s bill also would increase the period during which plaintiffs are allowed to sue from one year to two. In theory, this would allow both parties more time to settle and avoid going to court.

The bill also would eliminate the right to sue insurance companies directly. And when a plaintiff’s medical expenses have been paid by a health insurance company or Medicare, the plaintiff’s recovery of medical expenses would be limited to the amount actually paid to the healthcare provider by the insurer or Medicare, and not the amount billed.

Talbot’s bill last year was the top priority for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the state’s most prominent business lobby, and it passed the House easily. A Senate judiciary committee that was majority-Democrat and majority-lawyer killed the bill, saying there was no evidence it would benefit consumers and pointing to other factors such as tougher regulations that could reduce costs.

Supporters are hoping for better luck with the more conservative group of senators that emerged from the last election. A corporate-backed group that routinely describes Louisiana as a “judicial hellhole” cited the failure of Talbot’s bill in a recent commentary.

State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, also filed a measure that would change how Louisiana’s legal system handles claims stemming from auto accidents. Her bill would allow courts to consider evidence that a plaintiff wasn’t wearing a seat belt, which in some cases could lead to lower claims. Hewitt tried a similar proposal last year.

As of Wednesday afternoon, members of the state House of Representatives had filed seven bills while state senators had filed 12.