House panel advances legacy lawsuit bill

The bill was advertised as a compromise between landowners who wanted their property cleaned up and the oil companies that caused the environmental damage years ago with drilling and production activities.

But one state senator sat before a Louisiana House committee reading the names of hundreds of small landowners who were not party to the negotiations and whose lawsuits would be delayed, or possibly undermined, by the deal.

Senate Bill 667, sponsored by state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, would define environmental damage and set procedures and limits to any court award concerning what are called “legacy lawsuits.”

When an oil company admits to causing the damage, SB667 would clarify how litigation interacts with the state Department of Natural Resources’ evaluation and development of a plan to clean up the land.

The measure is the result of negotiations between the oil companies and the Louisiana Landowners Association, which represents the state’s largest property holders, many of whom had legal problems trying to get their land cleaned up from past oilfield activity.

The legislation is supported by a number of trade groups, including the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, and the Louisiana Mid- Continent Oil and Gas Association.

Before the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure advanced the legislation to the full House on a 9-3 vote, the panel stripped language added by state Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, that would have kept SB667 from applying to lawsuits already filed.

The bill now would affect all the litigation, except for those cases already set for trial.

Morrish said he doesn’t necessarily disagree with the changes outlined in the procedures for filing and litigating legacy lawsuits. He said he does have a problem with small landowners, who have no lobbyists or trade associations to represent them, following the rules, then having the rules change to the benefit of the oil companies.

“There are a lot of landowners in this state that don’t belong to or even ever heard of the Louisiana Landowners Association,” Morrish said, looking around the room at all the lobbyists and industry association representatives.

He read out many, but not all, of the names of the smaller landowners with litigation. “These are the people who have not been at the table,” Morrish said. “They’re citizens of Louisiana and they deserve better.”

Civil Law Committee Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, pointed out that in 2012, it was Morrish who set the deadline date for trials being set and now he wants to include all lawsuits that have been filed.

Morrish said he had learned since 2012 that in many parishes, the landowners have been unable to get the court to set a trial date.

Adley said, “It’s about putting money in their pocket and not cleaning up the environment.”

He said the legislation was about what to do when the cleanup costs are more than the amount in the contract between the landowner and the oil company.

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