A bill that would change how civil lawsuits are handled in state courts is headed to the House floor. The tort reform bill removes the threshold for having a civil case heard by a jury, instead of only by a judge. Current state law allows a jury trial only if the amount involved exceeds $50,000.
Chalmette Representative Ray Garofalo, the bill’s author, said ultimately this law will help Louisiana consumers.
“We have the highest auto insurance rates. We have the highest jury trial threshold,” Garofalo told the House Civil Law committee. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”
The bill’s supporters include the Louisiana Department of Insurance, the insurance industry, chambers of commerce, and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. LABI president Stephen Waguespack says tort reform is an engine for economic development.
“All that horsepower, and we’ve got it sitting on cinderblocks in the driveway,” Waguespack said. “We’ve got to get this thing on the road.”
But Representative Randal Gaines of LaPlace wasn’t buying into that claim.
“We are ranked in the top ten-percent in favorable business climates,” Gaines said, “So obviously our litigation climate is not having the impact that has been alleged.”
And judges don’t like it. Louisiana Judges Association chairman Bob Morrison says it will slow the court systems down considerably.
“You are asking us to assume a greater caseload of potential jury trials,” Morrison told the committee. “I have to allocate time. Where do I pull that from? From family court? From criminal trials?”
Morrison told committee members a jury trial costs the parties three to four times as much as a bench trial, and takes three to four times as long to resolve. He said this change will promote out-of-court settlements, rather than giving the parties their day in court.
Morrison also warned that the people won’t like it, when they get summoned more frequently for jury duty.
“Jury duty is a civic responsibility, and I don’t want to minimize that,” Morrison said. “But it’s not something most people are jumpin’ up and down to do.”
An effort to table the bill failed by one vote, and a subsequent vote to send the bill ahead to the House floor met with no objections.