Louisiana Record

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Civil justice reform a tall order for an election year, LLAW exec says


By Karen Kidd | Apr 26, 2019

Civil justice reform bills currently in the state legislature would address existing outdoor advertising laws. | MorgueFile - sebastiansantanam8qnfs

Some civil justice reform legislation has already been filed this year in the Louisiana legislature, but a state tort reform advocate believes it will be a difficult task seeing it through to the finish line in 2019.

Some lawmakers, however, appear to be dedicated to the fight, Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch (LLAW) Executive Director Lana Sonnier Venable told Louisiana Record.

"While it will likely be difficult to realize meaningful civil justice reform in an election year, we applaud the lawmakers who are bringing these important issues to their colleagues for debate," Venable said. "It is critical to continue to raise awareness about lawsuit abuse and its toll on our families and businesses. These discussions will help educate voters and keep these important issues at the forefront during the fall elections."

Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch Executive Director Lana Sonnier Venable | Photo courtesy of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch

In particular is legislation aimed at get-rich-quick-through-litigation promises that are advertised on billboards throughout the state.

"Multiple proposals aim to address the volume and placement of billboard advertising across the state," Venable said. "A disproportionate number of these billboards promise quick cash by encouraging legal action against businesses and citizens alike."

House Concurrent Resolution 4 would amend the state's Department of Transportation and Development administrative rules for outdoor advertising. Sponsored by Rep. Jack G. McFarland (R-Jonesboro), who prefiled the resolution into the House in late March, HCR4 would, among other things, place a moratorium on new and renewed permits for off-premise controlled outdoor advertising for expired permits that aren't renewed in a timely manner.

Other outdoor advertising bills already introduced into the state legislature are House Bill 445, sponsored by Beryl A. Amedée (R-Houma), and Senate Bill 211, sponsored by Conrad Appel (R-Metairie).

Venable became executive director of the non-partisan, nonprofit citizen watchdog group dedicated to preventing lawsuit abuse last summer.

The nation's business community has for a while given Louisiana's judicial system a dead-last grade for fairness and reasonableness, according to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI). U.S. business representatives who participated in a 2017 survey gave Louisiana courts a grade of “F” for judicial accountability, according to civil justice reform information on the LABI's website.

"Louisiana's liability exposure is a major concern to individuals, government, professionals and businesses, both large and small," the LABI website says. "For Louisiana’s economy to improve, it is necessary for the civil justice system to improve."

Despite years of recognition that civil justice reform is needed in Louisiana, real reform has generally sidelined in the state legislature by budgetary and other priorities.

Still, some lawmakers are trying. Some legislation already introduced into the state house, would address the so-called seatbelt "gag rule," which bars admission of seatbelt usage evidence in civil trials.

"Instruments to repeal the seatbelt 'gag rule,' return again this year, after being killed in the Senate last year," Venable said. "This legislation  would make evidence of seatbelt use admissible in the courtroom – many Louisianans may be surprised to know it currently is not."

Bills introduced into the state House that would repeal the seat belt gag rule are House Bill 51, sponsored by Rep. Mike Huval (R-Breaux Bridge), and Senate Bill 148, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Hewitt (R- Slidell)

Yet other legislation is aimed at reducing Louisiana’s civil jury trial threshold from $50,000 to $5,000, which would bring Louisiana more into line with other states. Louisiana currently has the highest jury trial threshold in the nation, where 36 states have no jury trial threshold at all.

House Bill 372, sponsored by Rep. Kirk Talbot (R-River Ridge), is an omnibus bill that would address jury trial threshold, as well as direct action and provisions regarding motor vehicle liability coverage relative to "delictual actions."

HB 372 also would prohibit state courts from awarding plaintiffs' medical expenses that were reduced or paid by a collateral source and addresses jury trials in lawsuits arising from motor vehicle accidents.

Other civil justice reform bills in the state legislature include:

House Bill 203: Sponsored by Rep. Gregory A. Miller (R-Norco), would address current privileges on liens on "immovables" in claims against owners and contractors. In Louisiana, immovables are land, fauna, agricultural crops, and buildings and other construction.

House Bill 273: Sponsored by Sen. Mack A. "Bodi" White Jr. (R-Baton Rouge) would provide procedural and technical updates and modernization language and processes in current contractor law.

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