Louisiana’s Process for Handling ‘Legacy Lawsuits’ to Change

By MELINDA DESLATTE | May 23, 2014

State laws governing disputes over how to handle the cleanup of environmental damage caused by drilling years ago have been reworked under a bill supported by Gov. Bobby Jindal and now headed to his desk.

Final legislative passage came Tuesday with a 27-12 Senate vote, over the objections of senators who said it was inappropriate to make the new rules retroactively apply to cover hundreds of long-running lawsuits.

Sen. Robert Adley’s bill changes the complex legal process for dealing with “legacy lawsuits” that seek compensation from energy companies that leased property and are blamed for damage from the drilling, such as contamination of ground water resources.

Oil and gas companies claim the lawsuits inhibit energy exploration and that trial lawyers drag out the lawsuits to maximize profits.

Adley, R-Benton, said his bill addresses confusion between the civil code and the mineral code and responds to recent court rulings. He urged his colleagues to “allow the industry to have some certainty about where this is all headed.”

Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, voted against the measure, saying it favors oil and gas companies over landowners and cleanup efforts.

“This isn’t about clean land. This is about money. That’s all it’s about,” he said.

Jindal announced in March that a compromise had been reached between industry and landowners, but as lawmakers began to debate the bill, it became clear that many of the landowners hadn’t agreed to any deal.

Meanwhile, oil and gas organizations were pushing the changes.

Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Jennings, said any compromise didn’t include a long list of individuals and families that have filed lawsuits seeking compensation for drilling damage.

“These people have put their faith in our judicial system, and I believe strongly it is a mistake to change the rules on these people in the middle of the game,” Morrish said. “I think it’s a travesty.”

Compromises over legacy lawsuits were supposedly reached in 2006 and 2012, but follow-up court rulings have revived disagreements.

Among the very technical language, the bill spells out the types of damage that can be recovered in the lawsuits and the recovery standards.

The measure also declares that remediation plans devised by the Department of Natural Resources are considered the most feasible for environmental cleanup. Critics say the agency favors the oil and gas industry over landowners.

The bill will apply to any case that hasn’t been set for trial by May 15.

“It gives (landowners) more rights than they had when the filed the suit,” Adley said.

Opponents disagreed with that assessment.

“If anybody in here thinks this bill helps give more damages to anybody that has a case, then I’ve got some property I want to sell you,” Amedee said.

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