Lana Venable, Executive Director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch
Some things never change – it’s been another long, hot summer in Louisiana, and aggressive plaintiff’s attorneys continue to pull out all the stops to advance what has become a cottage industry – unfounded lawsuits. A seemingly endless array of billboards along Louisiana roadways introduce drivers to many of the state’s trial lawyers, promising quick cash to sue and quickly settle accident claims.
From abusive litigation that impacts consumers to plaintiff-friendly judges handing out large payouts, Louisiana has earned a longstanding reputation as one of the most litigious states in the country. It should come as no surprise that the Pelican State has consistently garnered one of the top spots in the American Tort Reform Foundation’s annual Judicial Hellholes Report.
Unfounded lawsuits hurt businesses, both large and small, while generating exorbitant fees for attorneys. But many people don’t connect that these contingent fees and large plaintiff awards drive up the cost of doing business. Consequently, we customers are at the lower end of the stick are paying the price with drastic increases in prices for products and services.
Our state is home to a prime example – the high cost of auto insurance. Last year, Louisianans paid the second-highest auto insurance rates in the U.S., with an annual average premium of around $1,920. Most Louisiana drivers are uninsured or underinsured, which encourages drivers involved in accidents to sue. To compensate for this onslaught of lawsuits, Louisianans who do carry insurance are forced to pay higher premiums. Not only are drivers feeling the effects, but insurers are as well – several companies have left Louisiana over the past two years due to the unprofitability of the auto insurance industry.
Auto lawsuit abuse affects everyone in this state. On top of that, Louisiana has also earned the distinction of having the nation’s highest jury trial threshold, while 36 states have no threshold at all. Put simply, this means that Louisiana civil cases valued at less than $50,000 are tried without benefit of a jury. In these cases, a judge, rather than a jury, determines a verdict. This simply gives plaintiff-friendly local judges too much power over lawsuit outcomes. Perhaps it is no coincidence that 53 percent of claims in Louisiana are under $50,000, allowing trial lawyers to go “judge shopping” for favorable venues and denying many citizens their fundamental right to a trial before a jury. A settlement is often agreed to without risk of going to court.
Another area of concern is the rising number of claims targeting small businesses for minor violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Data from 2016 shows the filing of disability-access complaints in Louisiana has increased more than 360 percent from 2011 – 2016. Money-seeking plaintiffs typically target local and state governments, shopping centers and other small businesses and file claims without giving notice to the defendants. The businesses of Louisiana towns do not have a chance or the opportunity to resolve the slight issue and instead are faced with the high cost of defending themselves against frivolous lawsuits. In many areas, this trend has forced many small business owners to close shop. This shameful approach violates the spirit in which this important statute was written.
These are just a few examples of how deeply our legal climate is flawed. This state should look to improve these policies to drive down costs for consumers and businesses and contribute to the its overall economic health.
As a first step, it’s not too early to begin thinking about the historic turnover in the Legislature next year, with more than a third of the current body term-limited. LLAW urges concerned citizens to get engaged in the process to reform our legal climate and use your votes to turn up the heat in 2019.
– Lana Venable is the Executive Director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch.