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Judge Rules Against Louisiana's Attempt to Block Coastal Damage Lawsuit Against Pipelines

A state judge in Louisiana has ruled that a law passed earlier this year by the state's legislature that prohibits state agencies and local governments from filing lawsuits against the oil and gas industry for damage to coastal wetlands does not apply to its main target, the South Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E).

In Baton Rouge, 19th Judicial Court Judge Janice Clark ruled that SLFPA-E isn't a state agency or a local government, and therefore it is not covered by Act 544.

In delivering her ruling -- which was made in response to a motion filed on behalf of SLFPA-E -- Clark also said she may soon rule on the law's constitutionality.

"She ruled on that motion that Act 544 was inapplicable to the SLFPA-E...and then she asked everybody to weigh in one more time -- including the AG [Louisiana Attorney General James Caldwell] because they had not yet weighed in -- on whether the Act was also unconstitutional or not by this Friday," Bessie Daschbach, counsel for SLFPA-E, told NGI. "She may or may not take up the question of whether or not it is also unconstitutional this Friday."

State lawmakers passed legislation this year in an effort to end SLFPA-E's lawsuit against dozens of oil and gas companies (see Daily GPI, May 30). The bill defined which governmental entities can bring legal claims related to management of Louisiana's coastal zones to entities designated in the Coastal Zone Management Act. The measure excluded levee boards retroactively, creating a legal argument to have the current levee board lawsuit thrown out. The bill was not expected to affect similar lawsuits for environmental damage filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes against energy companies.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has opposed SLFPA-E's lawsuit and supported the bill to stop it.

"This issue doesn't belong in this court," said a Jindal spokesman. "These trial lawyers' attempt to find a sympathetic court is their latest effort to keep this frivolous lawsuit alive and waste taxpayer dollars. We believe Act 544 is constitutional and clearly applies to SLFPA-E, and we would appeal any ruling that had the effect of allowing this frivolous lawsuit to go forward."

Filed in state district court in Orleans Parish last year, the lawsuit alleges that about 100 pipeline/energy company defendants, large and small, compromised the integrity of Louisiana's coastal lands with activities tied to hundreds of wells and pipelines, heightening risks of hurricanes, storm surge and flooding in the region (see Daily GPI, July 25, 2013). The SLFPA-E operates and maintains the system of levees, floodgates, seawalls and jetties that protect the greater New Orleans region and asserts in the lawsuit that the defendants are obligated by law to restore the coastal land areas. Plaintiffs claimed that damages caused by the companies ran into billions of dollars.

In March, Clark ruled against the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association (LOGA), which had filed a lawsuit against the AG over a contingency fee contract that SLFPA-E made with a law firm in support of the action against energy companies (see Daily GPI, Dec. 17, 2013). Last month, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge ordered Clark to allow LOGA to appeal her March decision dismissing the original suit, an order which led to Monday's hearing.

The lawsuit is pending in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, where a hearing is scheduled for Nov. 12.

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