Mardi Gras parades are hazards, that’s for sure. Considering the large, lumbering floats, airborne beads and baubles, and inebriated throngs, it’s a wonder they’re allowed to roll at all. Especially in an era of eager personal injury attorneys.
The reason the chaotic parades are able to proceed as they do is a decades-old passage in Louisiana law that protects Mardi Gras krewes and other parade-presenting organizations from being sued for accidents along the route.
Thanks to a recent revision of the code, as of Aug. 1, it will be even harder to sue krewes.
Since 1979, parade presenters have been absolved of responsibility for people being struck by throws or otherwise injured by passing floats, unless the injury was caused deliberately by someone in the parade or because of serious negligence.
The legislation presumed that people attending Carnival parades and other such activities mostly took responsibility for their own safety, and it wasn’t the krewe’s fault if they didn’t. But there was an exception. According to the law, the drivers of tractors and other motor vehicles hired by the krewes weren’t protected and could be sued for “individuals acts of negligence.”
Until now. This spring, Louisiana state Rep. Scott McKnight, a Baton Rouge-based Republican, introduced House Bill 923 that erased the exception and extended the state’s parade protection to drivers. The bill passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by the governor on June 20.
Tragedies in 2020
It would be natural to imagine that McKnight conceived the bill based on a pair of tragic deaths that took place during Carnival 2020. On Feb. 22, a man was killed in the gap between segments of an enormous tandem float during the Endymion parade. Three days earlier, a woman had been run over and killed in the gap of a tandem float during the Nyx parade.
In February 2021, the husband and father of the woman, Geraldine Carmouche, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Nyx, the city of New Orleans and other parties for gross negligence, alleging that municipal ordinance required that the gaps between segments of a tandem float be closed to prevent people from trying to pass between. The Carmouche family lawyers did not immediately return calls requesting comment.
Later in 2021, the City Council voted to require tandem floats be connected with flexible barriers to eliminate dangerous gaps.
But McKnight said those incidents did not prompt him to change the law. His motivation, he said, was to protect the nature of Louisiana-style parades in the face of rising insurance costs and a possible reluctance among insurers to take risks.
In other states, he said, parades are mere spectacles. There are no throws and not much interaction between riders and the audience. In fact, he said, many parades are barricaded to keep crowds back. But here, of course, interaction is key.
“That’s our culture,” he said. “What would a parade be like without that?”
McKnight said that “the companies willing to come in and insure in our market are getting slim, and prices are going up.”
The barricade option
If prices become prohibitive, McKnight said, we may find ourselves in a position of choosing between our traditional laissez-faire attitude or continuous barricades along parade routes.
McKnight is against barricaded parades and hopes his legislation heads them off at the pass. “What city can afford it?” he asked rhetorically.
McKnight said he’s not a member of a parading group and doesn’t claim any particular expertise there. But, as the vice president of a major insurance company, BXS, he is an authority on liability.
Theoretically, the new law could save krewes and other parade presenters some percentage of their insurance costs. “I could not even tell you what it would save,” he said, “but it could open up more companies to come into the market.” And that, he said, could drive prices down.
Nothing stops lawsuits
Float builder and parade producer Barry Kern said that, as best he knows, there are currently only two parade insurance underwriters, K&K Insurance and Lloyd’s of London. Maybe, he said, McKnight’s amendment will expand the market and increase competition.
“From the perspective of the (parading) organizations,” the change in the law is “a good thing,” Kern said. And since his company often provides tractor drivers, “anything that protects the krewes protects me,” he said.
Like McKnight, Kern pointed out that parades in other parts of the country are more staid affairs, while New Orleans parades, which include throws, are more difficult to control.
“What’s unique,” Kern said, “is that we allow people to walk up to floats.”
Kern — who produces floats for the Endymion parade, but was not involved in any legal action resulting from the 2020 fatality — said he believes the new amendment may offer some relief from the “hinderance of lawsuits” but it won’t eliminate them.
“I don’t think anything stops lawsuits,” he said.
Watch Zulu and Rex live on the NOLA.com Parade Cam.
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