Tort reform proponent says 2012 legislative session had ups and downs

Kyle Barnett Jun. 8, 2012, 12:45pm

Melissa Landry, Executive Director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch

BATON ROUGE - Undoubtedly the biggest legislative win for tort reformers this spring was the passage "legacy lawsuit" legislation that will make it easier for energy companies to coordinate cleanup of polluted past oil drilling sites without opening themselves up to costly damages outside of the cleanup effort.

As state lawmakers wrapped up business June 4, advocates say there is still more to be done.

"On the critical issue of legal reform, the outcome of the session can be best described as mixed," said Executive Director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch Melissa Landry.

Although the contentious battle over legacy lawsuits finally came to a close late in the session when landowners, trial attorneys and energy producers were able to come to a compromise, efforts to reform asbestos litigation and lowering the jury trial damages threshold fell short.

"It was encouraging that lawmakers finally came together to craft new legislation that will help curb abuse in the niche sector of legacy oilfield lawsuits," Landry said.

"However, it was disappointing that the Legislature failed to adopt other much needed reforms such as a series of bills that sought to bring greater transparency and accountability in asbestos litigation. Also disappointing was their failure to pass legislation aimed at lowering Louisiana's excessively high jury trial threshold—a move that would've helped bring down Louisiana consumers' auto insurance rates, which are among the highest in the nation."

A bill that would have required plaintiffs in asbestos exposure lawsuits to provide a list of all potential defendants during the discovery process passed unanimously in the House, but failed to make it out of Senate Judiciary a in a 2-4 vote. Had it passed, the bill would have been the first of its kind in the country.

Also, legislation that would have lowered the jury trial threshold from its current $50,000 level was unsuccessful.

Currently, jury trials can only be requested if the amount of damages sought exceeds $50,000, otherwise a judge alone will determine the plaintiffs damages.

Proponents of lowering the threshold point to cases such as that of former 24th Judicial District Judge Joan Benge who was removed from office and recommended for disbarment after is it was revealed she awarded damages in a bench trial solely because the plaintiff's attorney was a political ally.

"While some of these reforms failed to pass this year, we'll keep working with our strong network of grassroots supporters across the state to continue raising awareness and encouraging our state leaders to create more jobs, not lawsuits in Louisiana," Landry said.

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