Survey shows overwhelming majority of voters connect excessive litigation with higher costs
A recent survey that shows a substantial majority of Louisiana voters favor tort reform could serve as a catalyst for bipartisan legislation next year aimed at alleviating costly litigation practices, according to top officials with citizen watchdog groups and business advocacy organizations.
Without the support of lawmakers in both major parties, recent history shows that it will be difficult to advance meaningful legislative changes that would translate into fewer lawsuits and an improved business climate, Melissa Landry, the executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch (LLAW), warns.
Concerned citizens have a “golden” but limited opportunity to change this dynamic over the next few weeks as they interact with candidates running for seats in the state legislature. The survey released earlier this week yielded results that point to a growing appetite for litigation reform that will be difficult for prospective lawmakers to ignore, she suggested.
“Looking ahead to 2012, we recognize it’s important to begin and maintain an open dialogue with candidates and newly elected lawmakers about the importance of passing common sense lawsuit reforms in Louisiana,” Landry said. “With dynamics changing significantly in the House and Senate, we see this as a critical opportunity to build momentum and bipartisan support for legislation that will help to improve our overall business and legal climate.”
The results from the statewide survey showed that 83 percent of Louisiana voters favor lawsuit reform. Here are some of the key findings:
- 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.
“These are impressive numbers that cannot be overlooked, even we were surprised by the margins,” Landry said. “This tells us there is an opening to further raise awareness and to prioritize legislative reforms. Louisiana’s litigation lottery stalls economic recovery. It’s time to make the state competitive again and to create jobs by moving the legal system back toward the mainstream.”
Blythe Lamonica, a spokesperson with the Coalition for Common Sense (CCS), which co-sponsored the poll, said Louisiana residents see a connection between the higher expenses they are experiencing as consumers and frivolous lawsuits.
Auto insurance rates, for example, have risen steadily in Louisiana in just the past few years to the point where they are now the second highest in the nation, she noted. The average driver now pays a premium of $2,453.00, according to CCS. The American Tort Reform Association has characterized some areas of the state as “judicial hellholes,” while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform places Louisiana courts 49th out of 50 for legal fairness. Only West Virginia ranks lower.
“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.”
Lamonica also said it was important to distinguish between unnecessary and abusive lawsuits and legitimate grievances that should be settled in court.
“There are real victims out there and there are people who have been injured through no fault of their own,” she observed. “That’s another reason for reform. These abusive lawsuits are taking time and resources away from people who have truly been harmed and who are waiting to have their day in court.”
LLAW and CCS have also sent out a questionnaire to House and Senate candidates crafted to measure their views toward civil justice reform. The public can click on each name listed to view the responses.
“We are going to make sure the voters know which candidates support lawsuit reform and which ones don’t,” Landry said. “We don’t do endorsements or advocacy, just voter education as we know from poll results this an issue they care about.”
“If a candidate chooses not to respond, and decides they do not want to be on the record, we will make sure voters know who those candidates are because this speaks volumes about their leadership ability.”
Some of the legislation Landry’s group and the CCS would like to see passed concerns some of the following items:
1.Petition in Latent Exposure Cases
The idea here is to prevent litigants from “double dipping” for the same alleged injury. Under the proposed legislation, plaintiffs must disclose 180 days before a trial all existing or potential claims.
2.Venue for Latent Exposure Cases
Currently, plaintiffs suing for asbestos, silica, or other latent disease exposure are able to file suit in any jurisdiction viewed as being favorable toward this claim. Lawmakers could institute stipulations that call for the proper venue in cases to be established only in the parish where the plaintiff alleges substantial exposure occurred.
3. Reducing Jury Trial Threshold
Louisiana is the only state in the nation that requires individual claims to reach $50,000 before a jury is allowed. Changes should be made so that Louisiana consumers and businesses to have their peers judge them, Landry said. She favors legislation that would reduce the jury threshold.
4. Resolution to Legacy Lawsuits of Old Oil & Gas Sites
Within the existing set of rules, the owners of property damaged from past oil and gas activities are not required to use the money they receive to clean up the sites as intended. Moreover, there is very little protocol for substantiating claims of pollution from oil and gas production by a property owner. As a result, companies are often brought into costly litigation before claims that lack evidence are dismissed in court.
Proposed legislation would provide state government officials with greater authority over cleanup exercises and the claims process.
Rep. Page Cortez (R-Lafayette) introduced a bill earlier this year aimed at reforming existing law, but the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee voted to defer the legislation.