Kyle Barnett Apr. 29, 2013, 7:21am

BATON ROUGE – A reform package that included multiple changes to the state’s code of civil procedure was stripped of most of its provisions before passing the Louisiana House Civil Law & Procedure Committee.

In its original form, HB 589, authored by Rep. Neil Abramson (D–New Orleans), would have created a proper venue for asbestos and other latent disease cases, permitted expedited trials by allowing six jurors to sit for trials in some cases rather than the 10 or 12 normally required, mandated some trials be seen by a jury trial even if they do not meet the jury trial threshold of $50,000 and made other technical changes to language within the civil code.

The American Tort Reform Association has consistently ranked Louisiana as having one of the worst legal environments among all states and most in need of reform since it began publishing its annual Judicial Hellholes publication in 2002.

Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said the latent disease portion of the bill would have disallowed plaintiffs from filing lawsuits in parishes outside of those where they were allegedly exposed to hazardous materials, such as asbestos.

“Currently, plaintiffs involved in asbestos, silica, or other latent disease exposure cases are able to file suit in any jurisdiction in the state," she said.

"Unfortunately, this encourages a culture of venue shopping where some contingency fee attorneys, who make their money directly based on the size of verdicts or settlements, seek out judges and venues where there is an established track record of ruling in favor of plaintiffs."

Landry said the provisions for proper venue and expedited jury trials were both stripped from the bill.

“It basically left 589 with minor technical changes and cleanup language from a bill that Rep. Abramson passed last year," she said. "So it’s essentially not substantial."

The only reform provision left in the bill would provide more governance over bench trials decided by a judge alone.

“It’s basically a small change to court procedure that deals with the jury trial threshold,” Landry said.

Currently, if a plaintiff is seeking damages in a lawsuit from a defendant in an amount of $50,000 or less the defendant does not have the right to a jury trial.

HB 589 would disallow plaintiffs from filing for damages over $50,000 and then later revising their damages to $50,000 or less in order to avoid a jury trial.

“Anyone can request a jury trial even if the amount is changed later on by the plaintiff or the defendant still has the right to request a jury trail,” Landry said. “In other words you can’t go back on your word to get in front of a single judge.”

In addition, language for the provision that would have allowed for an expedited trial that was stripped from HB 589 is still under consideration in HB 321, authored by Rep. Mike Huval (R–Breaux Bridge).

“The ideal case this would impact is the small automobile accident case," she said. "If both parties agree to it you can expedite your case to be heard more quickly if you agree to a smaller jury."

Huval’s bill has already passed the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure and is scheduled for a floor debate.

Although the original intent of HB 589 was changed, Landry said she is hopeful that the smaller reforms included in it as well as in HB 321 will pass and that provisions limiting lawsuit venues will be reintroduced next year with more support.

“It’s unfortunate that venue provision was moved from HB 589 because it is a very important issue," Landry said.

"There are lots of cases that are impacted by venue in Louisiana that are ongoing every single day. We longed for the legislature to address the problem that exists in some of our jurisdictions where enterprising plaintiffs attorneys go around looking for the most friendly venue in which to file their exposure cases and that is unfortunate.”

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