House advances industry-backed ‘legacy lawsuit’ bill
The Louisiana House voted 83-18 Wednesday to move forward a bill backed by the oil and gas industry that alters the state’s handling of “legacy lawsuits,” or disputes between landowners and oil and gas companies over who should clean up environmental damages caused by oil and gas companies that operate on leased lands.
As noted by Jeremy Alford in The Independent’s April 25 news story “Dark Legacy,” the “legacy lawsuit” description stems from companies that operate on already damaged lands “inheriting the liability created by previous, often defunct companies.”
The Times-Picayune reports that the bill’s author, Democratic Rep. Neil Abramson of New Orleans sees his measure as a way to expedite the process by which contaminated lands are cleaned, but the bill’s opponents — landowners and trial lawyers — claim that the bill will prejudice juries and limit the types of damages that juries can identify outside of state regulations:
Abramson’s bill would have the state Department of Natural Resources step in to develop restoration plans whenever an energy firm claims responsibility for certain damages caused by exploration and production. That mitigation plan, including the cost, would be admitted as evidence in any subsequent civil lawsuit filed by the landowners who leased their property to an energy firm.
That represents a significant shift from existing law, which leaves it to a jury in district court to decide responsibility for what are called regulatory damages (effects, such as open waste pits, that are subject to state environmental regulations) and private damages, which refer to claims that fall outside state environmental regulations.
The dispute has pitted Gov. Bobby Jindal against U.S. Sen. David Vitter. Jindal, whose former executive counsel, Jimmy Faircloth, represents some of the leading landowners in the matter, has tasked DNR Secretary Scott Angelle with attempting to craft a compromise. Vitter has accused Jindal of coddling plaintiffs’ lawyers at the expense of an industry responsible for tens of thousands of jobs in the state.
Despite an [overwhelming majority] vote, House Bill 618 ... faces an uncertain path as it moves to the Senate amid continued wrangling, with the energy sector and business lobby on one side and major landowners and their attorneys on the other.
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