Federal judge approves $48.1 million Bayou Corne settlement

A federal judge granted final approval Wednesday to a $48.1 million class-action settlement for Bayou Corne residents living near the Assumption Parish sinkhole that opened two years ago and has been swallowing land ever since.

U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey said there were no objections to the settlement, which will compensate 269 claimants who lived in the area and will now leave.

The settlement provides two elements of compensation. Claimants will be paid replacement costs for the property they sell to Texas Brine. They will also receive a second payment for damages.

The exact amounts of those payments will be determined by Special Master A. Shelby Easterly III.

Texas Brine is the defendant in the class-action suit. The company operated a salt dome mine in the area that’s believed to have caused the sinkhole to emerge in August 2012.

While Texas Brine is currently having problems with insurers in state court litigation over the sinkhole, the federal class-action settlement fund was almost entirely covered by three insurers.

The settlement involves about 100 properties, which each can have multiple claimants including owners, family members and tenants, attorneys said.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Lawrence Centola III said after the hearing Wednesday that claimants tied to another 27 properties in the class-action opted out of the settlement. An additional 18 people who had businesses or vacant land inside the class area, but who were already excluded by the class action, still filed opt-out forms, Centola said.

Easterly told Zainey that he would contact claimants with their individual allocation for damages within 60 days.

Centola later said claimants could receive those award letters in October. The claimants would then have 30 days to object first to Easterly and then to Zainey, who can raise or lower dollar amounts.

Based on that schedule, attorneys for the residents said, claimants could expect to receive checks for damages by December. They said property settlements will be finalized throughout the fall.

Zainey scheduled a status conference in 60 days to review the progress of the settlement.

The housing stock in the affected Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou areas varies widely, from mobile homes and camps to larger homes more often seen in upscale subdivisions or on large rural tracts.

While Centola has declined to say what the average property settlement would be under the suit, he has said that a few property buyouts were on a fast track. Prices for those ranged from $84,000 to $276,819.

Last year, under pressure from Gov. Bobby Jindal, Texas Brine made direct settlements with 66 property owners. According to parish assessor records, sales prices in those buyouts ranged from $29,000 to $528,675.

Easterly also filed a motion Aug. 4 asking Zainey to set aside 28 percent of the settlement as a reserve for attorneys’ fees and settlement and litigation costs.

The attorneys are seeking up to 25 percent of the settlement for their fee, but Centola said the plaintiffs’ attorneys will have to make a separate application for those fees at a later date.

Advocate reporter David J. Mitchell contributed to this story.