Letter: Lawsuit should run course

Quin Hillyer’s latest rant attacking the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East’s lawsuit against oil companies misses all the important points.

First, the companies destroyed much of the coast. That’s undisputed. In some areas they inflicted only minimal damage, but even a study by Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas, the trade association for major oil companies, conceded that elsewhere industry was “the overwhelming cause” of land loss. Second, the companies have numerous legal obligations; the state, for example, requires that areas where industry operated “be restored to the pre-existing condition.”

Hillyer told me he believes industry has met its obligations. If he’s correct, then the levee board loses the lawsuit — and its attorneys get paid nothing for thousands of hours of work, nor do they get reimbursed for expenses. He also insists that SLFPA-E never had authority to file the lawsuit. If he’s correct, again the attorneys get nothing.

That’s the way contingency fee agreements work. The attorneys accept all the risk and get nothing if they lose in court. This case, however, presented additional unique risk. Because of the political power of oil and gas companies, there was risk that this case would not be decided by evidence and law, but that the outcome would be dictated by political favors and threats.

I know of no instance in any other state where outside political forces ever directly dictated what happened in a courtroom, where a governor and legislature violated the fundamental principle of separation of powers and directly intervened in a case that already had a court decision. That is not a risk which any attorney working on contingency ever faced anywhere else in the United States, or ever before in Louisiana.

I suggested that SLFPA-E accept that risk; if the case is dismissed because of political interference in the legal process, then it will pay reasonable attorneys fees.

That seemed the only ethical thing to do. Suppose you hire a contractor to build a house but, after the contractor starts building exactly what you asked for, you change your mind, cancel the contract and fire the contractor. Would you owe him for time and materials? Of course you would. This is the same situation.

Hillyer takes umbrage at that provision because it might cost taxpayers, yet he is unconcerned at sticking taxpayers for $50 billion to $100 billion to address land loss, including land loss caused by an industry which has a legal obligation to repair it. He ignores the fact that if the legal process is simply allowed to run its course like every other lawsuit in America, taxpayers will have no costs whatsoever. But if SLFPA-E wins, it can greatly improve the protection of people’s lives and property.

Let’s not forget, that’s why the flood authority filed the suit, and that is still what this lawsuit is all about.

John Barry

former vice president, SLFPA-E

New Orleans