After veto, GOP lawmakers push ahead with business priority

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Despite a veto from the governor, the Louisiana House plowed ahead Monday with a top priority for business lobbying groups, trying to lessen the money that people could win against insurance companies and businesses in car wreck lawsuits.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards on Friday vetoed the Republican-pushed bill to make sweeping changes to Louisiana's civil litigation system, a proposal passed in the regular session that ended June 1.

Rather than try to override that veto, the House on Monday passed two new, rewritten bills aimed at the same “tort reform” goal of lessening successful civil lawsuits in car accidents or shrinking the damages awarded.

One measure, sponsored by Republican Rep. Ray Garofalo, was sent to the Senate with a 74-25 vote. A second proposal, sponsored by GOP House Speaker Clay Schexnayde r, headed to the Senate with a 78-22 vote.

Supporters say a Louisiana legal environment that encourages lawsuits with promises of big payouts is damaging existing business in the state and making it harder to draw new industry.

“Gov. Edwards vetoed a crucial tort reform bill during the regular session, but we’re not giving up," Dawn Starns, Louisiana state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a statement.

She added: “The cost of defending itself against just one frivolous lawsuit could be enough to drive a small business out of business, even if the small business wins at trial or the case is eventually thrown out of court.”

Bill proponents have pitched the civil litigation system changes as a way to lower Louisiana's insurance costs, which are the nation's second-highest, by making it less lucrative to sue over car accidents.

But Edwards noted the bill he vetoed by Republican Sen. Kirk Talbot didn’t contain a commitment that it would lower insurance rates. Opponents of the revised bills passed Monday, largely Democrats, repeated that point.

“We are lying to our constituents by saying we will lower insurance rates by passing this legislation,” said Rep. Mandie Landry, a New Orleans Democrat.

They've also said the measure would keep people from getting money needed to cover their medical bills and could increase costs for courts.

“This ain't even putting lipstick on the pig. This is a pig from the beginning,” Rep. Robby Carter, a Democrat from Greensburg, said in objecting to Garofalo's bill.

Republicans — who knew they had the votes to pass the measures — didn't take questions about the bills or offer speeches about them Monday.

Edwards said he's willing to continue negotiations, but bill backers worry the governor won’t sign any version because his allies and campaign contributors include personal injury lawyers.

The civil litigation changes sought by business groups and spread across multiple bills would:

—Force jury trials more frequently, so that lawyers would have to argue damage claims to more people than a single judge;

—Allow information about whether someone was wearing a seatbelt as evidence in litigation;

—Cap certain damages that can be awarded;

—Limit when insurance companies can be sued directly;

—Increase the time accident victims can file lawsuits to give more time for settlement negotiations.

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House Bills 44 and 57: www.legis.la.gov

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