By Melissa Landry
As the Louisiana Legislature kicked off with a bang this week, the political stage has been set for a series of historic battles that could drastically impact the direction of the state. While we can expect school choice, pension reform and some of Governor Bobby Jindal’s other top priorities to command media headlines, there is a quiet battle brewing over legacy lawsuits that could be just as important.
More than a dozen bills have been filed to change the process for handling civil suits filed against conventional oil and gas operators in the state for alleged environmental damage that may have occurred decades or even a century ago. These so-called legacy lawsuits are supposed to help clean up our environment, but there is mounting evidence that these cases are much more about making green than being green. Recent data compiled by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources for the state legislature show 78 percent of all the legacy cases filed present no evidence of actual damages according to state evidence standards.
This statistic begs the question: if there are no actual damages presented, then why are these cases being filed? In a video recently exposed by the American Tort Reform Association, one plaintiffs’ attorney consultant provides a possible answer—“big money.” During a lecture to teach other plaintiffs’ attorneys how to file phony legacy suits, he describes Louisiana’s system as a lawsuit “lottery” and outlines an eleven-step plan for how to blame oil and gas companies for natural occurrences in Louisiana’s landscape. He explains, “Salt domes impact the surface and near surface themselves—just a natural occurrence…But when I find these things, maybe I’m going to contend that the oil companies did it. It’s tough to name God as a defendant. The oil companies did it.” Can this be too outrageous to be true? See it for yourself at www.judicialhellholes.org/legacy-lawsuits/.
This video exposes legacy litigation for what it really is—mostly a scam run by a few politically connected personal injury lawyers for the purpose of making money, not cleaning up our land. And this ongoing legacy lawsuit racket comes at a huge cost to Louisiana workers and their families. A new report from the LSU Center for Energy Studies shows that because of legacy lawsuits Louisiana citizens have lost out on more than 30,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in wages over the past eight years. The new study also implies that without legacy lawsuit abuse, our cash-strapped state could have taken in much more tax revenue than it has. This abuse took a nick out of our potential state economic growth valued at $10 billion.
Thirty thousand jobs, $1.5 billion in workers’ wages and $10 billion in potential state tax revenue. How much more must be lost to these frivolous job-killing lawsuits? At a time when our national economy is suffering and energy prices are skyrocketing, it’s clear the status quo is not acceptable. Let’s hope the Legislature agrees that stopping unfounded suits and ensuring that resources get devoted to actual remedies rather than to a few legacy lawyers’ pockets.
Melissa Landry is Executive Director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, a non-partisan citizen watchdog group dedicated to improving Louisiana’s legal climate.