(The Center Square) – The Louisiana Senate on Monday approved bipartisan legislation that would make sweeping changes to how the state’s legal system handles car insurance claims.
Though other Republican-driven bills proposed during this year’s regular and special sessions make similar changes that supporters argue could lead to lower auto insurance rates, House Bill 66 by Mandeville Republican Rep. Richard Nelson is unique in attracting outspoken support from prominent Democrats.
“I’m going to urge the governor to sign it, not that that means anything,” said Sen. Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat.
Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed Senate Bill 418 from this year’s regular session, in part because it did not include a mandate to lower insurance rates. The bill called for a 10 percent reduction but allowed insurers to opt out if they can convince the insurance commissioner that they can’t afford to do so, which Democrats considered a huge loophole.
The provisions in Nelson’s bill would expire if auto insurance rates don’t go down by at least 15 percent, which Fields cited in declaring his support. It also includes a ban on charging women more based on their gender, which many Democrats also favor.
“God bless you, Sen. Fields,” said Sen. Heather Cloud, a Turkey Creek Republican. “We all give up a little bit [with this bill].”
House Bill 66 contains several provisions similar to those found in other bills considered this year. It extends the amount of time available to file a lawsuit over a motor vehicle claim from one year to two, which theoretically gives both parties time to reach an agreement without litigation.
It allows plaintiffs to retain their right to sue an insurance company directly, which other Republican bills sought to end, though it restricts the jury’s ability to know whether the defendant had insurance. The idea here is that knowing the insurance company will pay and not the defendant might prejudice the jury.
Like House Bill 57 by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, House Bill 66 would lower the amount at stake to trigger the right to a jury trial to $10,000 from $50,000, by far the highest in the nation. The bill would bar plaintiffs from collecting damages if their percentage of fault is greater than the combined percentage of fault of all other persons found to have contributed to the alleged injury, death or loss, which is a defendant-friendly wrinkle not addressed in other bills.
Senators voted 35-3 to send HB 66 back to the House, where it is possible that some of its provisions could be added to House Bill 57, lawmakers said. The speaker’s bill was in a conference committee Monday to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions.
Also on Monday, the state Senate voted 33-2 to approve House Bill 59, which would limit schools’ liability for potential lawsuits by students, teachers or other workers alleging exposure to COVID-19. An earlier version of the bill would have included lawsuits over any infectious disease.
The bill includes both public and private schools, including K-12 and higher education. Schools would not be protected if they fail to follow the policies set by the school and its governing body.
Senators also approved House Bill 19 on a 28-9 vote and sent it back to the House. The bill would make retailers, restaurants and hotels with no more than 50 employees eligible for the state’s Quality Jobs incentive program, which subsidizes creating new jobs.
Senators amended the bill to specify that only retailers harmed by COVID-19 are eligible.
Those types of business currently are not eligible for the program because they don’t drive economic growth, skeptical lawmakers said, adding that the current economic uncertainty made it unwise to commit to new tax breaks. But much like with other new tax cuts and incentives that a business task force is pushing for this year, supporters said the change would benefit struggling businesses and their workers, ultimately helping to support the state’s tax base.
The special session must end by 6 p.m. Tuesday. Lawmakers were planning for a long day Monday, with the “must pass” state budget still to be finalized.