Litigation hits local budgets

As municipalities, parishes and the state of Louisiana contend with budget tightening, residents of the bayou region might not be aware of one unofficial expense they are stuck paying – the lawsuit tax.

A growing presence of litigation against government bodies is costing taxpayers not only the expense of a court defense, settlement or even a judgment, it is also one of the factors that cause municipalities and states to cut back on other services so they are able to pay for someone’s day in court.

According to a new study released by Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, between 2006 and 2009, Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government, along with the municipalities of Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Monroe, New Orleans and Shreveport paid approximately $37 million in verdicts and settlements, and almost $15 million in court-related costs outside regular legal counsel. For all Louisiana municipalities, the LLAW estimated that $24 million is spent per year on litigation alone.

Lawsuits filed against Louisiana municipalities grew at a rate of 15 percent during the period that this study was conducted. The average number of lawsuits per jurisdiction listed was 88 in 2006. By 2009 that figure had grown to 102 cases – in some instances more than five times the number of cases filed against municipalities in Texas.

The bottom line means that Louisiana taxpayers shelled out an average $88 per household during the three-year study, and did not even know they were covering that expense. The amount is believed to have increased since that time.

Some lawsuits have merit and are justified to keep governments from being abusive or negligent. But any experienced lawyer knows that most cases of municipal litigation are not justified and simply are matters of someone trying to make an easy buck off the system. Either way, it costs money – a lot of money – just to go through the process. And of course, it is the taxpayer who will end up paying either out of their wallet or by receiving fewer services.

We can support litigants who have legitimate claims and call on government officers to be responsible. We understand that hard economic times can bring out desperate measures among some people. We also find those that would take advantage of the court’s time, energy, and taxpayer dollars, guilty of abuse. We just regret that we cannot sentence them.