The 2012 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature concluded in June, bringing an end to months of heated political debate on a variety of issues including education, legacy lawsuits, pension reform and many others.
On the critical issue of legal reform, the outcome of the 2012 session can be best described as mixed.
It was encouraging that lawmakers finally came together to craft new legislation that will help curb abuse in the niche sector of “legacy” oilfield lawsuits. However, it was disappointing that the Legislature failed to adopt other much needed reforms such as a series of bills that sought to bring greater transparency and accountability in asbestos litigation. Also disappointing is the failure to pass legislation aimed at lowering Louisiana’s excessively high jury trial threshold-a move that would’ve helped bring down Louisiana consumers’ auto insurance rates, which are among the highest in the nation. A recap of the most important legal reform bills from the session is below.
While some of these reforms failed to pass in the end, it is clear we are gaining traction as more and more lawmakers hear directly from you about the negative impact of lawsuit abuse on Louisiana’s small businesses, workers and their families.
We want to thank each of you for your support of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch. With your help, we will continue the fight to raise awareness and encourage our state leaders to create more jobs, not lawsuits.
Legislature Addresses Abusive Legacy Lawsuits
After many months of negotiation, lawmakers reached a key agreement in the final weeks of the session to address the abusive “legacy” oilfield lawsuits that are keeping needed jobs and wages away from Louisiana workers and their families.
From the beginning of the legacy lawsuit debate, LLAW urged legislative leaders to find a resolution that would put the science-based environmental cleanup of our lands before money-based litigation and, in many instances, greed-driven lawsuit abuse.
Through new compromise language amended into HB 618 by Rep. Neil Abramson (D-New Orleans) and SB 555 by Sen. Robert Adley (R-Benton), legislative leaders outlined an agreement that will achieve just that.
Key elements of the agreement include:
1.) A provision that allows a party to admit responsibility for environmental damage according to regulatory standards without having to admit liability for private damages. It does not take away landowner rights to pursue those private claims, it just addresses regulatory issues, so if there are damages, clean up can take place much more quickly.
2.) A provision that allows for a pre-trial hearing to determine what, if any, regulatory damages exist. This provision essentially puts regulatory cleanup before litigation. Under the current system, an assessment of regulatory damages and the development of the most feasible remediation plan do not occur until after litigation has concluded. Also, most legacy lawsuits that have been filed present no evidence of environmental harm, according to state measurement requirements.
3.) This agreement also allows the most feasible plan for regulatory cleanup, as developed and approved by the state through the Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation (DNROC), the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Department of Agriculture (DOA), and the comments of each agency to be admitted into court as evidence.
These are the three main areas of concern that the business and legal reform community sought to address from the very beginning of the legacy lawsuit issue. Landowners are also pleased with the agreement because it involves DEQ and DOA in the development and approval of remediation plans, which they feel provides an additional layer of oversight. Also, if there is an admission of responsibility by a defendant, most of the 270 existing cases will be swept into this law unless a trial date was set before mid-May.
The bottom line is this agreement represents a significant step forward in the fight to stop legacy lawsuit abuse, and it is encouraging that legislative leaders came together in the final weeks of the session to craft this compromise. Both bills were passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jindal.
Asbestos Bankruptcy Trust Transparency Bill Dies in Senate Committee
Once again the Louisiana Senate Committee on Judiciary A rejected a bid to increase transparency and accountability in Louisiana’s asbestos litigation system when it voted 4-2 to kill HB 477 by Rep. Neil Abramson (D-New Orleans). This common sense bill would have required the basic disclosure of information that would help stop abuse in Louisiana’s asbestos litigation system and help true asbestos victims.
Those voting FOR reform were: Sen. Conrad Appel and Sen. Jack Donahue. If you have the opportunity, please thank them for their support on this important issue.
Those voting AGAINST reform were Senators: Sen. Dan Claitor, Sen. Danny Martiny, Sen. Ed Murray, and Sen. Ricky Ward.
Sen. Ben Nevers, as chairman, did not vote.
One of the major problems with our current system is that asbestos plaintiffs are not required to disclose to the court if bankruptcy trust claims have or will be made. This lack of transparency between asbestos bankruptcy trusts and the courts allows personal injury lawyers to recover twice for the same injury, enriching themselves and their clients at the expense of those asbestos victims truly deserving of compensation.
HB 477 sought to fix that by requiring that plaintiffs disclose basic information before their trial so that judges and juries can make informed decisions.
HB 438 and HB 440, which also sought to address fraud and abuse in asbestos litigation, were voluntarily deferred at a committee hearing earlier in the session and were never brought back up for reconsideration.
While we are disappointed that the Legislature failed to pass any of the proposed asbestos reform bills this year, we will continue working to address this important issue, and we look forward to your continued support.
Proposal to Give Citizens Greater Access to Juries Defeated
HB 343 by Representative Tony Ligi (R-Metairie), which would have lowered Louisiana’s excessively high jury trial threshold, was defeated in the House Civil Law & Procedure Committee by a vote of 7-5. The issue is important because it likely affects the cost of operating an automobile in Louisiana.
Those voting in SUPPORT of the legislation included: Rep. Raymond Garofalo, Rep. Mike Huval, Rep. Nancy Landry, Rep. Clay Schexnayder, and Rep. Alan Seabaugh. If you have the opportunity, please thank them for their support on this important issue.
Those voting AGAINST the legislation included: Rep. Jeff Arnold, Rep. John Bel Edwards, Rep. Randal Gaines, Rep. Mike Hunter, Rep. Patrick Jefferson, Rep. Gregory Miller and Rep. Alfred Williams.
Rep. Robert Shadoin was absent for the vote. Rep. Neil Abramson, as chairman, did not vote.
Because Louisiana’s jury trial threshold is so much higher than the rest of the country, it makes us stand out like a sore thumb when auto liability premiums are calculated. The current high jury trial threshold and other issues with the state’s civil justice system have been linked to high automobile insurance rates. According to an Insure.com 2012 survey, Louisiana has the nation’s highest auto insurance rates with an average annual premium of $2,536.
With your support, we will continue raising awareness and encouraging the Legislature to support this common sense measure in the future. It is clear Louisiana car owners need some relief.
Thank you again for supporting Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch and urging our state leaders to address these and other key lawsuit abuse issues!