Senate sends ‘legacy lawsuit’ bill to Jindal

The Louisiana Senate on Tuesday approved legislation that would clarify how landowners could file “legacy lawsuits” seeking to clean up years-old environmental damage.

Senators voted 27-12 to send Senate Bill 667 to Gov. Bobby Jindal for his signature to turn it into law.

Senators battled over the legislation that reaches back and changes the rules on about 300 lawsuits that have been filed and not yet set for trial.

“The retroactivity in this case works in their favor,” state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said of the landowners whose lawsuits would be changed. “They get more than what they have.”

“It’s a travesty. I think it’s an absolute slap in the face of our citizens to change the rules in the middle of the game,” said state Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, who led the effort to sidetrack SB667. He added that he would not oppose the bill if the effect on legacy lawsuits was “from now on.” But he very much was against changing the rules after people filed their lawsuits.

“It’s about people. Real people that you can reach and you can touch,” Morrish said. These are small landowners — shrimpers and fishermen and hardware store owners — trying to get their land cleaned up after years and years of broken promises, he said. These are not the multimillionaires who own huge swaths of Louisiana, the landowners who agreed with oil companies on the content of Adley’s SB667.

Morrish’s efforts rallied some senators to the mic to support his cause, but not enough to vote to reject the legislation as it was amended in the Louisiana House. His motion to reject the amendments, and thereby send the bill to a conference committee, failed on a vote of 12 to 27.

The cases are called legacy lawsuits because they involve environmental damage that took place 30, 40, 50 years ago by companies that haven’t had anything to do with the site in decades. Oil companies lease the right to drill and produce oil and natural gas. Different companies lease those rights over the years. The companies argue that it is often hard to tell over the years which company is responsible for what damage.

Adley says his legislation merges and coordinates earlier court opinions on the issue, the implied obligations of the mineral code and law that was enacted in 2012. The new law needs to be applied retroactively so that all the lawsuits are under the same set of rules and procedures, he said.

The measure allows landowners to collect damages in excess of what they could under their leases with the oil companies and more than what could be collected under state regulations, Adley said.

SB667 allows the responsible party to admit to liability in order to start cleanup of the property, following a plan approved by the state Department of Natural Resources at the beginning of litigation; better defines contamination based on unsuitable levels, rather than just presence of a substance; clarifies how much money can be awarded for various proven claims in the lawsuits; and authorizes the losing party to pay attorney fees.

“This was a consensus approach. It’s an easy to understand bill,” said Stephen Waguespack, who heads the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

“Our state’s history on legacy issues has been to sue first, and talk later. That model was flipped on its head today. This legislation will help speed up responsible remediation of property,” Waguespack said.