Attorneys under fire at Capitol

REPUBLICANS ON ATTACK — Louisiana's heavily Republican Legislature is trying to enact laws against frivolous lawsuits that have been unsuccessful in previous years. Now, the GOP has the numbers it needs to help businesses.

Louisiana’s overwhelmingly Republican-controlled Legislature is wasting no time in its efforts to help business interests gain advantages they have been seeking for decades. GOP lawmakers have filed a number of bills aimed at attorneys who file lawsuits.

Senate Bill 395, for example, targets misleading TV, radio and billboard advertisements promising large settlements from lawsuits. It has passed the Senate 28-6 and is awaiting action in the House.

Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, and sponsor of SB 395, called attorney advertising “a black eye in the face of Louisiana.” Cloud said lawyers are making false promises of big payouts that are encouraging people to file lawsuits against businesses.

Cloud said people who file the lawsuits only get a small slice of the money from the judgment and settlements in most instances. Ads targeted by Cloud as false or misleading would have to disclose how much was deducted for attorney fees, expert witness fees, court costs and any other expenses.

Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, and an attorney, said the bill violates the separation of powers because the state Supreme Court regulates the practice of law. He said the state was going to spend a lot of money defending an unconstitutional bill.

Cloud, who worked with the office of Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry to write the bill, said she believes it will be declared constitutional. If it becomes law, it will be interesting to see whether it is a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of speech.

Two other bills are SB 418 that is aimed at automobile accident lawsuits seeking damages and SB 359 that seeks to kill lawsuits filed by parish governments against oil and gas companies. Those two measures have been made special order of the day Monday in the Senate.

Supporters of SB 418 claim it could lower auto insurance premiums by 10 percent. The measure would extend the deadline for filing a lawsuit from one to two years, lower the amount of damages sought from $50,000 to $5,000 in order to have the case heard by a jury, limit medical expenses recovered to the actual payments made and require lawsuits to be filed against the other driver and not his insurance company.

State Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said passage of the bill could give consumers a 25 percent saving on auto insurance in a few years. It would require insurance companies to reduce rates by 10 percent if their costs go down, unless they can prove to the insurance commissioner the reduction would hurt their business enough to drive them out of state.

Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, said the Legislature since the 1980s has passed a couple of sweeping auto insurance reform bills and Louisiana still has the second highest insurance rates in the country. Donelon sponsored one of those bills when he was a state legislator.

Sen. Bob Hensgens, R-Gueydan, is sponsor of the bill (SB 359) aimed at killing lawsuits filed against oil and gas companies for drilling damages affecting coastal land loss. Cameron is one of the coastal parishes filing the lawsuits.

The legal firm filing a number of those lawsuits has already secured a tentative $100 million settlement with Freeport-McMoRan. However, The Advocate reported a Senate committee killed a bill Friday that would have established a framework on how to spend the money over the life of the settlement.

Oil and gas interests say those “lawsuits present serious challenges for an industry that wants to operate and has been operating safely on the coast for decades.” Hensgens said only the state can file the lawsuits.

Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales, voted against the bill, saying “Big Oil has run the state for years and it’s time for them to pay up.” Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, said parish governments have the right to sue since their areas are suffering the land loss.

Republicans clearly have the votes they need to pass all of these measures. They have 27 of the 39 senators, one more than the 26 needed to override a governor’s veto. The GOP holds 67 seats in the 105-member House. However, that is 3 short of the 70 needed for an override.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has received major support from attorneys who have filed the lawsuits being targeted, but he has challenged his critics to produce any action he has taken as governor to help their cause. Bills like those being discussed here haven’t made it to the governor.

Edwards did say Thursday in an email statement that he opposes SB 359 because it would be a retroactive move to stop lawsuits that have already been filed. His press secretary said the parishes deserve to have their day in court. The Police Jury Association of Louisiana also opposes the bill as an infringement against local government.

Only Edwards knows how he will react when these other bills attacking trial attorneys are expected to get to his desk. He can’t run for governor again, but he may have other political plans.

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