Tort reform has been the rallying cry of the insurance industry and big business for decades. Simply put, tort reform is an unwarranted assault on our civil justice system and an encroachment on the civil liberties of every citizen. It is always falsely presented as necessary to reduce insurance premiums. However, significant tort reform occurred in 1996 under the pretense that insurance premiums would decrease. They did not.
Rather, Louisiana abolished strict liability and severely restricted the ability to pursue punitive damages in cases involving hazardous materials. Because of the 1996 tort reform, punitive damages are essentially only available in cases involving drunk drivers, for which insurance coverage is excluded. These tort reforms further insulated the insurance industry and big business from liability.
The current agenda in the push for tort reform includes lowering the jury trial threshold from $50,0000 to $5,000, which is claimed will result in lower premiums This, too is totally false. When there was a similar push for tort reform last year, advocates were forced to admit that the reforms would not lower premiums. The jury threshold is simply the case value required before jurisdiction exists for a jury trial. Cases valued at less that $50,000 are tried by a judge. There is no rational connection between the jury threshold and insurance premiums.
On the other hand, there is a very rational and legitimate reason for Louisiana’s jury threshold of $50,000. The jury threshold in Louisiana was once set at $10,000. This proved unworkable and clogged the courts’ dockets because most cases were set as jury trials. Empaneling a jury and trying a case by jury take the better part of a week; in the same time frame, a judge can try and dispose of several cases. Justice delayed is justice denied. Cases cannot simply languish on a court’s docket unresolved.
Consequently, there was a consensus among judges, lawyers, and the Louisiana legislature that an increase in the jury threshold to $50,000 was warranted to unclog the courts’ dockets and resolve cases in a timely fashion. Further, the implicit suggestion by the insurance industry and big business that judges cannot be trusted more than juries to decide cases is farcical. Judges are elected officials, and, by and large, are much more conservative than most juries.
For the insurance industry and big business, tort reform is not about lowering premiums and protecting consumers; it is about delay. Each day that justice is delayed is one more day of profits. It is time for consumers to wake up. The truth is that no matter what, the insurance industry and big business will always turn a hefty profit on the backs of consumers. The issue is not tort reform; it is insurance reform.
The Louisiana agency responsible for enforcing regulations and ensuring the marketplace is fair, accountable and competitive has protected the insurance industry more than consumers. Further, the abolishment of the Insurance Rating Commission in 2008 means insurers are no longer subject to scrutiny by consumer oversight. Change is needed, just not in the nature of tort reform and diminishing consumers rights.