For years, insurers and corporate defendants have claimed they have been victimized by plaintiffs who stipulate that their damages in a BI suit do not exceed $50,000. With such a stipulation, the defendants are barred from a trial by jury and exposed to judge trials in hostile forums with unsympathetic judges that are reportedly prone to finding liability when proof is very weak and awarding excessive damages―close to $50,000―in these cases.
To address this problem, defense groups proposed tort reform legislation in the 2014 session of the Louisiana Legislature to guarantee a defendant the right to trial by jury in all matters, regardless of the amount of controversy. On April 15, 2014, the Louisiana House of Representatives narrowly rejected the bill by a vote of 51-49, with five members abstaining.
If the bill had passed, defendants who found themselves in “small claims” court would have had the ability to force the plaintiff to try his case to a jury that may provide a more impartial fact finder on liability and damages in “small” cases―under $50,000. Therefore, these “small cases” may still add up to a lot of exposure for insurers and corporate defendants in Louisiana who are hit with multiple judgments in these cases. Unsuspecting defendants should be wary of plaintiffs who do not ask for a jury trial in Louisiana—whether it is for damages for $50,000 or higher. It is always best to ask for a jury as a defendant in Louisiana state courts and waive a jury trial later if appropriate.
The Louisiana legislature will not revisit the $50,000 jury trial limit until 2016, and it appears there is a good chance it will pass then.