Judge greenlights class-action status for sinkhole lawsuits

A federal judge in New Orleans says he will grant class-action status to four lawsuits filed over issues raised by the Assumption Parish sinkhole, according to a new court filing Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey also will give Texas Brine Co. 30 more days to directly negotiate stalled out-of-court settlements with evacuated residents lacking legal representation.

The developments came to light Wednesday in a minute entry summarizing a meeting between Zainey and attorneys Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

The entry did not make clear when the 30-day clock would start running or what would happen to those residents — who could be members of the new class action — if the 30-day period ends without a final deal from Texas Brine.

Zainey announced the rulings one day after Gov. Bobby Jindal criticized Texas Brine officials over the lack of progress in settlement talks, which have been held with residents who are not named in the suits.

Texas Brine officials announced minutes before Jindal spoke on Monday that a dispute among its three insurers had indefinitely put the settlements on hold. Zainey previously authorized the Texas Brine negotiations to proceed with the suits’ class-action status pending.

Class-action suits are typically filed when a group of people have similar injuries or seek damages from the same event or series of events.

The lawsuits claim a failed Texas Brine salt dome cavern caused the sinkhole last year that led to the evacuation of 350 people for more than nine months and counting. The evacuation ordered on Aug. 3 includes the northern Assumption Parish communities of Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou.

The allegations blaming the cavern failure on the sinkhole mirror the suspicions of scientists working on the sinkhole for the state Office of Conservation.

Zainey had not signed and filed the order as of Wednesday evening. The judge on Tuesday gave attorneys until June 10 to give him a proposed order by June 10 to grant class action-status to the four lawsuits.

But the plaintiff’s attorneys asserted in a statement Wednesday that the minute entry means the class action against Texas Brine and Occidental Chemical Corp. is now certified.

“The action consolidates all of those cases presently filed in Federal Court in New Orleans into one legal action and includes individuals who have not yet filed a lawsuit so long as they are within the defined class,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ steering committee said in the news release.

Texas Brine and Occidental did not oppose the plaintiffs’ motion to certify the class, the minutes say.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Lawrence Centola III said in an interview the 30-day clock started running when Zainey filed the minutes Wednesday.

“Our interpretation is Texas Brine has until June 24 to get that deal done,” Centola said Wednesday.

He added that Zainey also has given those residents lacking legal counsel until July 11 to opt out of the class action.

“If they don’t settle their case or opt out by July 11, they will be part of the class,” Centola said.

Sonny Cranch, Texas Brine spokesman, said company attorneys believe the clock will not start until the certification order is signed, which is expected later this week.

Zainey also told the plaintiffs’ attorneys Tuesday to clarify the class in the proposed order and include a list of residents who are negotiating with Texas Brine out of court. More than 100 people have made requests to negotiate with Texas Brine.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys said in the statement the presumed class likely will consist of all people who owned or leased property in the mandatory evacuation area.