Lawyers push forward with lawsuits against Texas Brine

Plaintiffs’ attorneys in the class-action lawsuit over the Assumption Parish sinkhole said Wednesday they aren’t too worried about new litigation between Texas Brine Co. and one of its insurers.

The attorneys said they have an April 14 trial date in U.S. District Court in New Orleans and have no plans of deviating from having their clients’ day in court.

“The lawyers for the class action are not concerned about Texas Brine’s dispute or lack thereof with their insurer in Texas,” New Orleans attorney Lawrence Centola III said.

“It doesn’t change the fact that we have an April 14 trial date. It doesn’t change fact that we are moving forward with our April 14 trial date.”

Backup insurer Liberty Insurance Underwriters Inc. has asked a federal judge in Houston to declare the insurer does not have to pay under its policy with Texas Brine.

Liberty contends Texas Brine, a Houston company, ignored warnings about problems with a salt dome cavern believed to have had a sidewall collapse that lead the sinkhole to surface on Aug. 3, 2012.

Centola cast doubt that any of the exclusions Liberty is asking the court to uphold would apply to his clients or, if they did, would face a high legal hurdle to prevail.

That confidence has not stopped Centola and Blayne Honeycutt, of Denham Springs, another plaintiff’s attorney, from fielding calls Wednesday from nervous clients after the Liberty suit came to light.

Honeycutt is similarly not worried.

He maintains Texas Brine still has insurance and Liberty would not have to start paying until $75 million in excess insurance provided by other insurers is exhausted.

Liberty has $50 million in coverage under its policy with Texas Brine.

“It is a situation we’re going to monitor closely,” Honeycutt said. “I can assure you of that.”

Texas Brine officials have said they will fight Liberty’s claims in court and believe they have coverage under Liberty’s policy.

Liberty’s attorneys in Houston have not returned messages for comment, including Wednesday.

The sinkhole has prompted a string of lawsuits in state and federal court from residents of Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou, large landowners, pipeline companies, as well as state and parish governments seeking to recoup the millions they are spending on the sinkhole response.

Honeycutt, Centola and other class-action attorneys are representing residents who have been under a 15-month-old evacuation order since the sinkhole emerged last year.

Each plaintiff is ultimately competing, if victorious against Texas Brine and other defendants, for the same pot of money available through insurers and company funds.

Texas Brine has separately sued Vulcan Materials Co. and other companies and filed third-party claims in the federal and state litigation against them, alleging Vulcan and others share in the blame for the sinkhole.

If Texas Brine prevails, these companies could provide additional pockets.

Vulcan officials said Tuesday they are still gathering information for their response to Texas Brine’s claims.

Assumption Parish Police Jury President Martin “Marty” Triche, who is a lawyer by trade, contended the dispute between Texas Brine and Liberty has no bearing on the parish’s claims in court.

“The fact that you don’t have insurance or an insurance company is trying to claim some exclusion under the policy doesn’t in any way relieve the responsible party from the obligation to pay our bills,” Triche said.

Centola noted that the class-action has the first trial date among all the suits against Texas Brine.

Liberty filed suit against Texas Brine and Occidental Chemical Corp. on Oct. 22 in U.S. District Court in Houston and has its first status conference planned Jan. 13.

Texas Brine has successfully moved to have many of the residents’ suits shifted to federal court where they are being consolidated into the class-action case before U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey in New Orleans.

Centola said the class has about 100 property owners in it.