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LABI Looks for Greater Access to Jury Trials

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry will push lawmakers to lower the state’s uniquely high threshold for civil jury trials in the upcoming session. LABI president Stephen Waguespack says current law violates your constitutional right to trial by jury.

“You — as a citizen — can’t get a jury unless you’re sued above $50,000,” Waguespack explains. “If you’re sued for $35-, $40-, $45-thousand, then you better hope you’re going to get assigned to the right judge, because it’s the only choice you’re going to get here.”

Louisiana is the only state with a $50,000 limit.

“In 36 states, it’s a zero threshold,” Waguespack says. “You can go get that jury any time you want it.”

LABI would like the jury threshold to disappear completely, though Waguespack says they are willing to negotiate almost anything lower than the current limit.

District Judge Timothy Kelley, who presides over civil cases in Baton Rouge, says lowering or eradicating the jury threshold will slow civil trials to a crawl.

Judge Tim Kelley
Judge Tim Kelley

“The access to justice will be delayed,” he says unequivocally.

Judge Kelley says the threshold was enacted in 1993 because court dockets had become incredibly backlogged. Sending the smaller cases to bench trials speed the whole system up.

“A typical jury trial will take four and a half days — basically, the week,” Kelley says. “During the same time period, I could do three or four bench trials a day, and bring 16 or more cases to resolution.”

Kelley says it currently takes ten to fourteen months from initial civil suit filing until trial. Changing the jury threshold will push trial dates closer to three of four years from first filing.

Only Baton Rouge and New Orleans have separate divisions for civil and criminal cases. Everywhere else in the state, district judges handle both types of matters.

“Criminal cases take precedence, as they involve loss of liberty,” Kelley explains. “So even though I may schedule a civil trial, if there is a criminal jury matter that has to go, I’m going to move the civil trial and do the criminal one instead.”

That will slow the process even more, for most districts in the state. Yet Waguespack says LABI’s members want this, and believe it will reduce the number of lawsuits filed, and ultimately lower insurance rates.

Kelley doubts that, but says it will certainly increase the demand for juries. In low population parishes, that demand could outstrip the supply.