James Gill: It’s official: Louisiana is a ‘hell-hole’

Louisiana has just been named a “judicial hell-hole” by the American Tort Reform Foundation, but modesty compels us to note that we really didn’t do much to deserve the accolade.

And accolade it is, if you believe in an even break for the average Joe, for the American Tort Reform Foundation was established in 1986 by doctors and engineers who were tired of being sued every time the wrong limb was chopped off or a bridge collapsed.

OK, that may overstate the case somewhat, but this is an organization dedicated to the proposition that the corporations it represents should not be distracted from the pursuit of profit by pesky lawsuits. Just compensation is not a popular concept at the foundation.

Louisiana has risen to No. 2 “judicial hell-hole” this year — California is the foundation’s ultimate hell — but not because of any exhaustive case analysis. The rankings are more or less worthless, being “based on anecdotal evidence” that suits the American Tort Reform Foundation’s “political goals,” according to a recent article in the West Virginia Law Review.

That is certainly the case here, for Louisiana has incurred its ire largely on the strength of lawsuits that seek compensation from oil and gas companies for the decades of vandalism that have help wipe out huge chunks of the wetlands and cleared a path for killer storm surges.

If we can be dubbed a judicial hell-hole before the first hearing has even been held, what would the American Tort Reform Foundation say if a court started handing out billions to the plaintiffs? The oil and gas companies, evidently fearing that might happen, are keen to squelch the suits. Their best chance of doing that may be in the political arena, and we will find out in a few months whether they retain their celebrated knack for making legislators sit up and beg. The rankings could hardly have come at a more propitious time for them.

The corridors of the State Capitol will be crawling with lobbyists not just from the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association but from the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. Their plea for laws denying local public bodies the right to sue offending corporations will no doubt receive the respectful attention to which major campaign contributors are accustomed, but that doesn’t mean they will succeed.

Among those who sense that Big Oil may finally meet resistance in Baton Rouge is John Barry, driving force behind the first of “judicial hell-hole” suits, which was filed by the Louisiana Flood Protection Authority ­— East. Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes soon followed suit.

Gov. Bobby Jindal being firmly in the corporate camp, Barry promptly lost his seat on the authority but continues the fight to make the companies pay to restore the wetlands and upgrade flood protection.

His allies include the “Green Army,” a coalition of environmental groups led by retired Gen. Russel Honoré, who established himself as a local hero when taking charge of Hurricane Katrina relief.

Don Briggs, head of the Oil and Gas Association, seems to regard the lawsuits as a personal affront and points out that “many factors” in land loss and subsidence have nothing to do with oil and gas. The industry, moreover, is already paying for coastal restoration though royalties collected by the state, he says.

It is true that much of southern Louisiana would have disappeared even if oil and gas companies had left us alone. But the canals and pipelines that carved up the wetlands played a major role, causing up to a third of the loss, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Jindal administration does not deny it. As for royalties, they merely secure the right to tap into the oil and gas that have made the companies fabulously rich. It was never part of the deal that they could wreak havoc with impunity.

Any attempt to rein in outlaw industry is always met with empty threats of dire consequences. So it is this time. Stephen Waguespack, Jindal’s former chief of staff who is now president of LABI, for instance, says that “targeting industries that have valid permits for working in the coastal zone” sends an “absolute signal to anyone looking to invest in Louisiana to think twice about it.”

Nonsense. It sends a signal that companies relocating here had better live up to the terms of their permits.

Oil and gas companies have routinely neglected their legal obligation to repair the damage they cause and clean up their toxic mess.

Someone around here has tried to turn Louisiana into a hell-hole, but not a judicial one.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.