Senate OKs bill to sidetrack suits against energy industry

The Louisiana Senate advanced legislation Tuesday night that would scuttle a lawsuit filed by a levee board against 97 energy companies for damaging Louisiana coast.

On a vote of 23-15, the state Senate approved Senate Bill 553 which sets up approval hoops for such litigation to occur and makes the hoops apply retroactively.

The legislation is aimed at a July 2013 lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East.

The Jindal administration and oil and gas interests are attempting to derail the litigation.

The contract prompting the legislation was agreed to behind closed doors with no notice of it on the authority’s public agenda as required by law, state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton said. Adley sponsored SB553 and several similar measures.

“It was done illegally. A corrupt process does not breed good things,” said Adley, R-Benton. “You want to destroy the fabric of this society, destroy the law.”

Adley said the legislation does not stop the lawsuit.

“It says you are going to have to follow a process with complete sunshine when you enter into one of these contracts,” Adley said.

SB553 would require officials of the authority to win approval from the attorney general and the governor before they hire lawyers.

In addition, lawsuits that involve a contingency fee, which this one does, would have to win approval of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. Contingency fees assure lawyers of collecting a certain percentage of any award.

State Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, urged senators to make the legislation apply for future lawsuits but not that already have been filed.

“Why shouldn’t the courts be allowed to decide,” said Kostelka, who was once a judge. He also questioned whether the legislation could legally apply retroactively.

The state Senate rejected an amendment that would have eliminated the bill’s retroactive provision. The vote was 17 for and 20 against.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said he had the same concern as Adley about how the contract was put in place.

But he said the legislation is “doing surgery with a sledgehammer because one authority did some shenanigans with one contract.” He said the legislation would make it more onerous for all levee boards to do their jobs.

State Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, supported the legislation, saying, “There’s a difference between coastal restoration and hurricane protection.”

“The job of levee districts is to protect the people, not sue on their behalf,” Chabert said.

But state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, said the people whose homes were devastated by Hurricane Katrina needed someone to advocate on their behalf because they did not have the funds to sue oil and gas companies.

“The oil and gas industry is very important to our state ... but wrong is wrong,” said state Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans.