NEW ORLEANS – For the sixth year straight, Louisiana’s judicial system has been singled out as one of the nation’s most unfair, according to the American Tort Reform Association’s (ATRA) annual Judicial Hellholes report.
While Louisiana dropped from second place on the list last year, the continually poor ranking of Louisiana’s judicial system has critics pleading for reform.
“Louisiana’s poor ranking for six consecutive years in the Judicial Hellholes report, and in numerous other surveys, clearly indicates our state’s legal environment is hostile to job creation and economic growth,” said Melissa Landry, executive director of grassroots legal watchdog group Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch. “If we want to bring more jobs and more tax revenue to our state, we should put an end to corruption in our courts, rein in frivolous litigation and pass reforms to ensure a fair legal system for everyone.”
In ATRA’s 14th annual Judicial Hellholes report Louisiana was again cited for its high jury trial threshold. Currently Louisiana civil courts are not required to grant a trial by jury unless the damages being sought are $50,000 or above. In cases in which awards under $50,000 are sought, judges are able to alone grant decisions and damages. According to ATRA, this opens the potential for more favorable outcomes to be granted to politically connected trial attorneys.
The Judical Hellholes report also pointed out that Louisiana’s lax restrictions on venues where a lawsuit can be brought allows for “venue shopping” in which trial attorneys file lawsuits in courts outside of jurisdictions where alleged damages occurred in attempt to land their case in a court more likely to grant a favorable outcome.
Also of note is the continuing battle over “legacy lawsuits,” which target oil companies for alleged pollution on private property from energy exploration activities that were in many cases undertaken prior to environmental regulation. Such lawsuits often settle for tens of millions of dollars but seldom do those funds go towards cleaning up the land in question. Over the past decade the Louisiana legislature has rolled out a series of laws to reform the practice, many of which have been overturned in part or whole or otherwise weakened or ignored by the judicial system.
Legacy lawsuits are said to have damaged the state’s economy by diverting money to trial attorneys and their clients that would otherwise be invested in further energy exploration activities. The threat of litigation is thought to have kept companies from expanding operations in Louisiana resulting in an estimated nearly $7 billion in loss of investments and subsequently stifling the creation thousands of jobs. Currently, more than 400 legacy lawsuits are on file throughout the state.
The legacy lawsuit issue has also spilled over into the recent election of of Democrat John Bel Edwards, who will become Louisiana’s next governor in only a few weeks, which does not bode well for court reformers. Edwards, a plaintiff’s attorney himself, is known for voting in line with trial attorney special interests in his eight years as a state legislator.
Edwards’ campaign was largely assisted by a multi-million dollar Louisiana Water Coalition PAC financed by wealthy trial lawyers, who specialize in legacy lawsuit litigation, created in response to campaign promises of sweeping tort reform in the state by Republican opponent David Vitter. The super PAC, created and led by wealthy trial lawyer John Carmouche - who has made millions from legacy lawsuits - was behind a series of aggressive, vicious attack ads against Vitter.
The effort by trial attorneys to affect the outcome of the gubernatorial race is not a new strategy either. In 2012, the trial attorney backed Clean Land and Water PAC that ran ads in support of the campaign for Jeff Hughes who ultimately won a seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court.
However, in 2015, judicial reformers did have at least one reason to be optimistic about the future of Louisiana’s judicial system. Louisiana voted out controversial Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell who was well known for using the so-called “Buddy system” to grant multi-million dollar no-bid contracts to trial attorneys to work on state issues, including many attorneys who provided financial support to his political campaigns.
Caldwell will be replaced by former Congressman Jeff Landry who has pledged to rid the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office of “legal cronyism” and has indicated he will use the his power as attorney general to reign in the Edwards’ administration if need be.
The entire Judicial Hellholes report can be accessed here.