49 States Use Common Law, Louisiana Does Not
Louisiana’s unique, rich history permeates many aspects of life in the Pelican State. Beyond language, food, and tradition, Louisiana’s history also strongly influences the law. In fact, unlike every other state in the U.S., Louisiana does not use the British common law tradition. Instead, Louisiana civil law has been derived from the French Napoleonic Code.
What does that mean in practice? How does that difference play out today?
To answer these questions, we must first examine the different legal theories to understand how common law differs from civil law.
Louisiana Civil Law vs. Common Law in Other States: The Difference in Legal Theory
The key distinction between Louisiana civil law versus the common law used in every other state lies in how the laws are interpreted and implemented — and the role of legal precedent. Specifically, here is how these two legal systems differ in theory:
- Common law strongly relies on precedent. Statutes are not comprehensively codified. Instead, judicial decisions in previous cases are documented as case law. That case law becomes the basis for future rulings, with judges having the discretion to select which relevant precedent(s) apply to a given case.
- Louisiana civil law relies on a judge’s interpretation of codified statutes. Instead of focusing on past rulings, Louisiana law allows judges to interpret the law. That can open up the possibility of different judicial interpretations and applications of the same law for similar cases, regardless of precedent.
Here, it’s also crucial to understand that:
- Louisiana’s legal terminology is not necessarily the same as in other states. Take, for instance, the “liberative prescription,” known in Louisiana. This refers to the deadlines for filing a case, and it’s called the “statute of limitations” in every other state in the U.S. Here’s a helpful Civil Law to Common Law Dictionary, correlating all the different terms and providing definitions for each.
- Louisiana law today is more of a hybrid legal system based on the Napoleonic Code with some common law influences. Additionally, Louisiana civil procedure law does comply with the U.S. Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (source: LSU Law).
Does the Difference in Louisiana Law Make a Big Difference in Practice?
No, there is not usually a big difference in practice in tort — personal injury — law. There can be differences in other areas of civil law, like in estate law and Louisiana’s forced heirships. However, with personal injury cases, the Louisiana civil law system and other states’ common law systems often handle the cases similarly. In fact, in practice:
- Louisiana judges can and do rely on centuries of case law history, even if they base their decisions on codified law. In other words, precedent isn’t disregarded and can be essential in Louisiana judges’ decisions and rulings.
- Judges in other states are not bound to an “unwavering adherence to precedent [because that could] undermine the principal policy on the other side of the stare decisis ledger: assuring accurate judicial decisions that faithfully apply correct principles of law” (source: Stanford Law). In other words, these judges can decide precedent is grossly unjust or a “doctrinal anachronism” and defy the previous ruling. They are not chained to making decisions solely based on precedent.
What Does It All Mean When You File a Personal Injury Claim?
Regarding Louisiana civil law, the bottom line is that it’s not like the common law systems in any other state, and it can be quite complicated. When navigating the Louisiana civil legal system and setting a tort case up for success, your best bet is retaining an experienced Louisiana personal injury lawyer who can lead the way to favorable, efficient resolutions.