NEW ORLEANS – On the heels of the release of a survey ranking Louisiana as having the second worst legal climate in the country, prominent business organizations and legal reformers are speaking out.
The survey of 1,200 defense attorneys titled 2015 Lawsuit Climate Survey: Ranking the States, was released by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform Thursday revealing findings that Louisiana suffers from a perceived unfairness of juries and called into question judicial bias and competence.
Among the survey’s findings were that 75 percent of respondents said the legal climate of a state figures into their plans to relocate or expand there.
In response to the survey Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said the negative portrayal of Louisiana’s legal climate is not just a perception but a reality.
“The new survey results reflect the unfortunate reality that so many of our small business owners and manufacturers face everyday—an unbalanced and inefficient legal system that is inundated with excessive and often times meritless litigation,” Waguespack said.
Waguespack called for legal reforms in the state legislature to curb the abuse of the civil litigation system.
“The Legislature should prioritize legal reform in its 2016 session. By acting decisively against the abuses of today, it can help create a more prosperous future for Louisiana — a future where the state is no longer swamped with litigation,” Waguespack said.
Melissa Landry, executive director of the legal watchdog group Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch referred to Orleans Parish’s place on the list as the fifth worst jurisdiction in that nation.
“Some courts in Louisiana, and the New Orleans region in particular, have certainly earned this negative reputation for having biased judges, excessive litigation, outsized damage awards, and a legal process that often allows frivolous claims to proceed,” Landry said.
Landry also encouraged votes to pay attention legal reform advocates during the 2015 election season.
“While we cannot paint the entire judiciary with an overly broad brush, it is clear our legal system is in desperate need of reform,” Landry continued. “As we enter the final weeks of the primary campaign, it is imperative that voters take the time to ask candidates where they stand on this important issue and support those who are committed to achieving major changes in 2016.”
According to Jim Harris, executive director of the Coalition for Common Sense, the survey is a clear indication that reforms should be enacted in the state’s courts.
“Despite some modest reforms in recent years, the perception that Louisiana has one of the worst legal climates in the country persists today,” Harris said. “In order to truly overcome this reputation, major changes should be made to ensure access to fair and impartial courts in Louisiana.”
Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association whose members have been targeted by specialized multi-million dollar environmental lawsuits dubbed “legacy lawsuits,” said the survey results come as no surprise.
”Louisiana has a legal environment that is in dire need of an overhaul,” Briggs said. “We must have a business climate that encourages growth, not one that threatens it. Hopefully the next governor will implement a solid plan for reform that creates an atmosphere that will attract investment to Louisiana the way Texas has.”
The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Coalition for Common Sense and Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch have banded together to enact changes that would reduce the state’s jury trial threshold. Currently, defendants being sued for damages that do not exceed $50,000 are not guaranteed a right to trial by jury and instead may have a single judge decide their fate. Louisiana has one of the highest jury trial thresholds in the country.
The associations have also asked that venue laws be reformed to limit forum shopping in Louisiana. Certain jurisdictions, such Orleans Parish, have been identified as plaintiff friendly and have consequently been the focus of lawsuits that neither originate from the parish or have a substantial connection to the parish.
Other suggested reforms include requiring elected judicial officials to conform to place court budgets and contracts online, as well as improving the manner in which environmental lawsuits are handled and putting in place reforms to discourage the filing of frivolous lawsuits.
Prominent plaintiff’s attorneys were also contacted for comment on the 2015 Lawsuit Climate Survey: Ranking the States survey. Steve Herman, of New Orleans-based Herman Herman & Katz, did not respond to a request for comment and John Carmouche, of Baton Rouge-based Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello, chose not to comment.
(Editor's note: The Louisiana Record is owned by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform).