Our Views: End barrier on trials

If there is one sign of Louisiana’s failed political system, it is the willingness to do or to structure things in a way that is different and usually radically different from most, if not all, other states.

There ought to be a high barrier of argument for those wanting to keep Louisiana’s unusual ban on civil jury trials. Today, a jury trial is not allowed in lawsuits seeking damages under $50,000.

Louisiana is alone among the states with such a high bar, and 36 other states have no value limit at all. If a party wishes to seek a jury trial in a dispute, other states have managed to provide that avenue, instead of a bench trial before a judge.

In 2012, the House Civil Law Committee refused to change the ban on jury trials for damages under $50,000. Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, is back for another round.

His bill has the backing of a statewide coalition of business interests and Gov. Bobby Jindal, who early in the session talked about “the need to create a more business-friendly environment in the legal system.”

The jury trial limit seems an obscure issue, but we hope legislators will tackle it this year and pass the Garofalo bill.

The argument for today’s 20-year-old limitation is that court dockets will be clogged with civil jury trials involving relatively small sums. If that is a legitimate argument, and other states don’t seem to have the problem, we shall see in a couple of years if it happens in Louisiana, and the Legislature can revisit the issue.

What this is about is the experience of businesses, not just automobile insurers, in facing bench trials for sums just under $50,000; the district judge is the recipient of campaign contributions from the array of plaintiff lawyers appearing before the bench, and businesses find it easier — if very costly — to settle.

Garofalo is admirably frank: “They’re settling these all day long, $48,000 or $45,000 or $49,000,” he told editors of The Advocate.

The prospect of a jury trial would not be welcome to every business defendant, but it would, as Garofalo says, have an impact on “settlement negotiations” — presumably leading to lower settlements in simple accident cases and slip-and-fall lawsuits.

This is a collision of interests, no pun intended.

What business interests have in their favor in the argument is the need to bring Louisiana in line with other states where possible and useful.

We would not back this bill if we thought that people with genuine and serious injuries would not get a fair day in court, but the fact is that a serious injury is, in today’s high-cost medical system, always going to exceed $50,000.

Louisiana should not be an outlier in this high barrier to civil jury trials.