John DeSantis / Houma Courier
Louisiana's auto-insurance rates remain among the highest in the U.S., according to industry studies and various state-by-state comparisons.
Local insurance agents say the reasons are many, but that a high number of lawsuits in cases involving wrecks certainly figure into the picture. But they also say there are ways for people to lower their individual rates, and that they should be certain to ask the professionals handling their accounts for ways to do so.
Meanwhile tort-reform advocates in Louisiana hope for change to a law they say makes it more likely that insurance companies will settle rather than fight cases they could win.
Melissa Landry, director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, a nonprofit judicial-reform organization based in Baton Rouge, said the law requiring a claim of $50,000 or more be made before a case can get a jury trial is unfair to insurance companies defending lawsuits because that means most cases end up before judges.
And while Landry does not wish to paint the judiciary with a broad brush, she alleges that in some cases elected judges are more likely to find for plaintiffs — the people living in the communities they serve — than for insurance companies they sue.
“Many suits filed as a result of automobile accidents are less than $50,000, so these cases are decided by judges, many of whom are fair but some of whom may tend to side with the local people who elect them rather than the insurer, sometimes regardless of who is right or wrong,” Landry wrote in a letter that appears in today's Courier and Daily Comet.
That means insurance companies would rather settle, she said, than cast their lot before a judge they fear might not rule fairly, even if they believe the client is not at fault. Louisiana, insurance experts note, is one of the few states where insurance companies are sued directly rather than just the people they insure.
She cites a new report at insure.com, an insurance-industry Web site, that shows Louisiana's average auto-insurance rates at $2,452 annually, the second highest in the nation, behind Michigan. Louisiana has held the No. 2 spot for years, checks of various industry reports show.
In 2008, Louisiana was second behind Washington, D.C., said Loretta Worters, vice president of the New York-based Insurance Information Institute. The average combined for liability, collision and comprehensive coverage was $1,105, while the national average was $789.
“Louisiana has ranked as one of the most expensive auto-insurance states for years, even though a large proportion of residents, about 40 percent, buy minimum limits,” she said.
High alcohol use and low seat-belt use have also made for high premiums, she said, acknowledging that frequent lawsuits also make premiums higher and that the threshold Landry mentioned plays a role.
Terrebonne's chief judge, Johnny Walker, said he has heard the insurance-company arguments against the so-called threshold for years — it was enacted during the last administration of former Gov. Edwin Edwards in the mid-1990s — but that he sees no basis for the complaints cited.
“Ask the people who come for jury duty do they want to come here for fender-benders,” Walker said. “From our standpoint, judges call it as they see it, and the Legislature had said this is where we are drawing the line. I think we could have a $100,000 limit.”
Juries, he said, have indeed been responsive to insurance companies, local juries in Terrebonne especially, stating that they tend to be conservative.
No matter how the burgeoning battle over the $50,000 threshold ends, local insurance agents say there is a lot consumers can do to reduce their rates if they communicate their desires for lower costs.
Houma insurance agent Donna Miller Owens said local claim histories are important.
“If you live in a rural area where nobody sues anybody else it will tend to be lower,” Owens said. “In a more densely populated area, costs are high and people do run to an attorney right away and there is a lot of litigation.”
One of the biggest discount potentials, she said, comes from “bundling,” by keeping all cars as well as homes, boats and even four-wheelers insured by the same company.
Discounts are available for retirees, as well as for youngsters who maintain at least a 3.0, or B, average in school.
“Statistically, among honor student kids, there is less claim activity,” Owens said.
Senior Staff Writer John DeSantis can be reached at 850-1150 or firstname.lastname@example.org