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Greater Access to Jury Trials Recommended in Louisiana as Safeguard Against Judicial Bias

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Ligi says taxpayers, consumers would benefit from lower costs

Louisiana taxpayers and consumers stand to benefit from pending legislation that would lower the current threshold set for civil jury trials to the point where it is more in step with the national average, according to tort reform proponents.

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 a verdict.

A new report released through Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch (LLAW) shows that the majority of states have no threshold for jury trials, and among those states that do, Louisiana’s is by far the highest in the nation. In fact, Louisiana’s jury trial threshold is more than 28 times the national average of just $1,742.40, the study concludes.

“Most Louisiana citizens believe they have an automatic right to a trial before a jury of their peers,” Melissa Landry,” the LLAW executive director said. “That is correct in criminal cases, but not in all civil lawsuits. Because of a unique law in Louisiana which dictates that civil claims under $50,000 must be decided by a judge, not a jury, many citizens are being denied their fundamental right to a trial before a jury.”

Louisiana court data from 2000-2010 does demonstrate that the number of civil jury trials held in district courts only represent a very small fraction of the actual number of cases filed. This can be problematic, Landry suggests, because Louisiana’s elected judges could be induced to rule in favor of constituents, instead of defendants, regardless of what the evidence might say. A trial by jury, that allows for a variety of perspectives, instead of judge who may be biased, is a better arrangement for Louisiana’s citizens, she argued.

“While most of our state’s judges are fair and reasonable and uphold themselves to the highest ethical standards, it is clear that money contributed to judicial elections may at times add an element of political pressure that juries do not experience,” Landry said. “Removing or lowering Louisiana’s civil jury trial threshold will allow more citizens to participate in the judicial process and give more parties involved in court proceedings the opportunity to have their issues decided by citizens rather than elected officials.”

Rep. Tony Ligi, a Metairie Republican, is sponsoring the legislation (HB343) favored by LLAW that would lower the jury trial threshold from $50,000 to $5,000 for tort suits. Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) is sponsoring competing legislation (HB417)  that would actually raise the jury trial threshold from $50,000 to $75,000 and Sen. Ed Murray (D-New Orleans) is advancing a similar bill in the upper chamber (SB 349) that would also boost the threshold to $75,000.

Ligi’s bill will be heard before the House Civil Law Committee this Monday, April 2.

The Pelican Institute contacted the offices of Rep. James and Sen. Murray and invited them to comment, but did not receive a response.

The threshold should be lowered, Ligi said, because every citizen has a constitutional right to a trial by trial that should not be limited to plaintiffs. Moreover, the policy change is needed because Louisiana’s high auto insurance rates are at least partly the result of excessive litigation, he argued.

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.
“If you have a strong possibility that a defendant can ask for a jury trial, it’s going to make the plaintiffs’ attorneys a bit more circumspect about what cases they are going to take,” Ligi said. “They will be less inclined to take nuisance type cases if they know they may very well wind up in full jury mode. I would expect to see more discretion exercised here. This would also result in some cost savings.”

Ligi is also dismissive of the idea that judges may have difficulty keeping pace with their dockets if the jury trial threshold is lowered.

“Other states with lower jury trial threshold, like Florida for example, have not had this problem,” he said. “Change is always hard to come by, and I think over time we will actually see more cases get settled, and fewer cases filed. I don’t anticipate that the dockets will be overwhelmed.”

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

Louisiana’s civil justice system was ranked 49th in the nation, according to a 2010 survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Jefferson and Orleans parishes were also listed on the American Tort Reform Association’s 2011-2012 “judicial hellholes” watch list.

The Coalition for Common Sense, which also favors Rep. Ligi’s bill, warns that Louisiana will lose out on business and investment opportunities unless litigation practices are changed.

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