Amid the recent spate of laudatory columns that promote Gov. Bobby Jindal as vice presidential timber, the Americans for Tort Reform on Friday released an opinion slamming the governor on the legacy lawsuit debate.
“It’s a safe bet that few of those singing Jindal’s praises as a possible vice president know that, as tort reformers see it, Jindal’s past is full of troubling ties to the parasitic personal injury bar,” wrote Darren McKinney, director of communications for the American Tort Reform Association. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit is supported by corporations and industrial trade groups, which advocate less accessibility to the court system for people claiming to have been injured by the business community.
McKinney claimed Jindal had received “in excess of $500,000” in campaign contributions from “trial lawyers,” who generally represent injured parties in lawsuits against corporations.
Jindal refused Friday to grant an interview to answer direct questions. His press office released a prepared statement, in which he praised the compromise in the legacy lawsuit debate and stated: “We want the support of all Louisianians.”
Jindal also has been buffeted by criticism of U.S. Sen. David Vitter, another Republican elected to one of Louisiana’s highest offices. Vitter, in emails to supporters, tweets and in press releases stated that Jindal should be more involved in pushing the legacy lawsuit legislation supported by the energy industry.
But on Thursday, after the compromise legislation was announced, Vitter released a statement: “I really congratulate Bobby for coming around and supporting this strong solution. It will help clean up real contamination and shut down the trial lawyer bonanza, which has been hurting job creation in our energy sector. And it happened for one reason – legislators did their job, faced a tough issue and voted the right way in the (Louisiana) House, and were about to in the (state) Senate.” Vitter said.
Negotiations over how to handle the complex legacy lawsuit issue have been conducted for months, mostly behind closed doors.
Legislators and Scott Angelle, who runs Jindal’s natural resources department, have tried to cobble a compromise between two high-powered special interests — large private landowners and large oil companies — along with lobbyists for the more numerous, though less well-funded, smaller independent oil companies and smaller landowners.
At issue is the state’s procedures for cleaning up environmental damage to property caused years ago when energy companies — usually the bigger ones — searched, developed and exploited oil and natural gas fields. Following acceptable procedures of the time, the energy companies often left messes on-site, then sold the leases to others, usually smaller oil companies.
Landowners contend that litigation, which carries the threat of an expensive verdict, seems the only motivation to get the oil companies to clean up.
Big oil companies counter that agreeing to a cleanup opens them to much larger verdicts for less documented damages, such as financial losses from being unable to use the land. They say the lawsuits are keeping the companies from expanding exploration and production activities in Louisiana, which translates into fewer employment opportunities.
In order to accelerate cleanup, the compromise outlined in Senate Bill 555 and House Bill 618 would allow a party to admit responsibility for environmental damage and to clean it to the regulatory standard.
Once the oil company admits responsibility, the Department of Natural Resources would draft a feasible cleanup plan, according to the two bills. Nobody would be allowed to communicate with the state workers while the plan is being put together.
The cleanup would be overseen by the heads of Department of Natural Resources, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the commissioner of agriculture. All their comments would be admissible in court, the legislation states.