Legacy lawsuit reforms mostly ignored by judges, say energy industry advocate and legal reform group
BATON ROUGE – Supporters of reforms passed in the 2012 state legislature that regulated the handling of certain types of environmental pollution lawsuits are claiming the law is not being followed as was intended and is now largely ineffective.
A multi-year drive to regulate legacy lawsuits, which involves the cleanup efforts of environmental damage from drilling years ago, culminated in the passage of two laws in the 2012 legislative session that supporters of the laws claim are now being circumvented.
The legacy lawsuit issue involves landowners suing oil and gas producers for the past contamination of their land through energy exploration activities.
A study released prior to the 2012 legislative session by David Dismukes, Professor and Associate Director of the LSU Center for Environmental Studies, estimated that over 30,000 jobs could have been created statewide in the absence of legacy lawsuits and put a price on the cost of the litigation on Louisiana’s economy at $6.8 billion.
The bills passed in the 2012 would have provided oil producers with the ability to admit to responsibility for cleaning up pollution from past oil drilling activities without admitting to larger damages that in past trials have yielded awards in the tens of millions of dollars. In addition, a mechanism was created that allowed the Department of Natural Resources to develop a cleanup plan for polluted lands that would be open to public scrutiny via public hearing.
The legislation was seen as compromise between landowners and the oil and gas industry, but the way the laws are being interpreted is being called into question.
“There is no question that we are a sue happy state and it is a sad situation, but that is the reality,” said Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. “The legacy law as it exists today is a very good law and all of the statutes regarding it are good. It is just that the courts aren’t paying any attention to that.”
According to Briggs, courts handling legacy lawsuits have circumvented the laws.
“The law is very clear and it’s not being followed by the judicial system,” he said. “Consequently, if the judges don’t pay any attention to the law then it is kind of difficult to have good jurisprudence.”
Briggs said the failure of the courts to properly apply legacy lawsuit reforms has emboldened plaintiff’s attorneys to further bring suits without merit.
“It didn’t hurt the plaintiff’s board at all,” Briggs said. “They are still out there suing, They are still out there doing their thing and extorting from the oil and gas industry.”
Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said judges on the district level are the most at fault for not following new regulations.
“These rules are decided by the legislature, not the judges,” Landry said. “Judges have an obligation to enforce the law as it is written not legislate from the bench.”