Louisiana’s elected judges tend to favor trial lawyers over businesses, watchdog group says

Louisiana’s expensive auto insurance rates are symptomatic of public policy favored by trial lawyers that typically result in anti-business settlements, according to a citizen watchdog group that favors new legislation.

State premiums average $2,453 a year, a report from insure.com shows. This means Louisiana is the second most expensive state in the entire nation, right behind Michigan, which is set at $2,541 per year. Although a variety of factors may be responsible for the high costs, Louisiana’s high threshold for jury trials stands out as the primary culprit, Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch (LLAW), argues.

Under current law, either party in a civil proceeding only has the right to request a trial before a jury when the amount involved in the dispute exceeds $50,000. In those cases where the amount does not exceed $50,000, a judge, rather than a jury, determines the verdict. This is a problem, Landry said, because Louisiana elects its judges.

“We are concerned that there may be a tendency for judges to rule in favor of their constituents, instead of the defendants, regardless of the evidence,” she suggested. “Most of the people who contribute to judicial campaigns are attorneys. That’s why we prefer to have a trial by jury with a variety of perspectives, instead of one judge who may be biased.”

LLAW has been in touch with several state lawmakers who have expressed an interest in advancing legislation that would lower the jury trial threshold to the point where it is more in step with other states.
“We have the highest jury trial threshold in the entire nation by far,” Landry said. “Some states don’t have any threshold at all and they view it as a fundamental right to have a trial by jury.”

Public sentiment is very strongly weighted in favor of lawsuit reform, according to a survey LLAW released earlier this year.

Some of the key findings are as follows:

  • 65 percent said there are too many lawsuits in Louisiana.
  • 69 percent agreed that lawsuit abuse costs jobs.
  • 71 percent agreed that lawsuit abuse is hurting the state’s economy.
  • 85 percent agreed that personal injury lawyer ads encourage people to sue.
  • 79 percent agreed lawsuits raise the price for consumer goods and services.
  • 76 percent agreed that lawsuit reform will attract and keep businesses.
  • 78 percent agreed that lawyers take advantage of disasters to file frivolous lawsuits.
  • 75 percent said they would be less likely to support a candidate for public office who took campaign contributions from personal injury lawyers.

“Even we were surprised by these margins,” Landry said. “It shows that there is a high level of public awareness about abusive litigation practices and that now is the time to push for reforms. It is time to make our state competitive again by moving our legal system back into the mainstream. Lowering the jury trial threshold is one way to get started.”

Blythe Lamonica, a spokesperson with the Coalition for Common Sense (CCS), which co-sponsored the survey, said Louisiana residents see a connection between the higher expenses they are experiencing as consumers and frivolous lawsuits.

“Almost eight out of 10 voters surveyed believe lawsuit reform will attract and keep business,” Lamonica said. “People now see that these excessive lawsuits hurt them directly. It hurts them in their pocketbooks and it hurts them when it comes time find a job.”

Insurance companies know they are more likely to lose cases that come before a judge rather than a jury, and as a result they tend to raise rates in anticipation of higher expenses, Landry noted.

“This is not to say that every judge would necessarily have bias,” she said. “But because they are elected, this does add in a certain dynamic and we are convinced that having more jury trials would bring greater balance. When you have more people involved in the discussion and you have multiple perspectives, it is easier to get to the truth.”

Jonica Coates, director of the civil justice reform council for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), said tort reform will be a major priority in the 2012 legislative session.

“I have found that most people who are not attorneys just assume they have a right to a trial by jury-that it’s one of their automatic rights,” she said.  “When they learn that the amount in dispute has to be at least $50,000, the reaction can be quite strong.  Most are aware through the media that a jury trial is allowed in criminal trials, and the assumption is made for civil trials. At one point recently there were at least 35 states that had a threshold of 0 (zero). “

Coates described the Louisiana District Judges’ Association as the “most persuasive opponent” of reform. The group has given testimony before legislative committees arguing that the docket load is too heavy and that it is difficult to find citizens who want to serve on a jury.

Kevin Mooney is the Capitol Bureau Reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at kmooney@pelicanpolicy.org and followed on Twitter.