Legacy Lawsuits: Sometimes The Smartest Action Is To Do Nothing


For weeks now I’ve been telling you about the mud-covered debate taking place in the Louisiana Legislature. Politicians greased to the gills by Big Oil dollars are now pushing an effort that would limit citizens from fighting back against decades of pollution in the oil patch. Big Oil invented its own phrase — “legacy lawsuits” — to describe what in reality is just the legal right of folks to recover damages from companies that fouled up their land and now want to walk away from the mess.

The current session in Baton Rouge is slated to end in about three weeks. Despite a slew of other important issues in the Bayou State, the oil giants’ efforts to put the kibosh on these lawsuits are near the top of lawmakers’ agenda. The oil-slacked lobbyists are putting their money on legislation sponsored by a man they call “Mr. Oil” — state Rep. Neil Abramson. Interestingly, Abramson doesn’t have any oil wells in his Uptown New Orleans district, but he does have a gusher of Big Oil cash coming into the law firm where he works, Liskow & Lewis. Indeed, one of the firm’s clients is British Petroleum, which speaks volumes.

The Abramson bill — which passed the state House and is awaiting action in the Senate — would allow state regulators from the oil-friendly Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to decide on landowners’ environmental claims and in many cases prevent them from seeking further justice in the courts. The bottom line is that too many of these claims — cases where oil companies polluted land or the water underneath with toxic substances such as lead, benzene and radioactive radium-226 — would never see the light of a courtroom if Abramson’s bad bill becomes law.

The Senate is currently weighing action on two proposals that relate to “legacy lawsuits” — the Abramson bill and a rival piece of legislation sponsored by Republican Senator Brett Allain. The Allain bill isn’t as bad as the love letter to Big Oil that has already passed the House. For one thing, it would allow some 250 lawsuits that have already been filed to continue to move forward. Also, his plan places more restrictions on when DNR could intervene in a case.

Now, the Daily Advertiser in Lafayette is weighing in on the “legacy lawsuit” fight. Its solution is the same one that I advocated here last week: Do nothing. Here is an excerpt:

We might be tempted to let the big-money boys duke it out, except for one thing: The dispute is over the fairest and most efficient way to clean up land leased for oil production after energy companies are done with it.

The best way to proceed at this point is to scrap both versions now being considered. They represent nothing more than a fight between two big dogs over an especially nasty bone. We don’t need to see legislation like this until the two sides have reached a consensus on who or what agency is in the best position to make a credible, accurate assessment of how land should be restored when energy production is finished.

There are three options here. Enacting the Abramson bill would be a big win for Big Oil and a major loss for the citizens of Louisiana. If the Legislature feels compelled to act on “legacy lawsuits,” the safeguards that are contained in the Allain bill make it an acceptable option. Or, as the Advertiser points out in its editorial, lawmakers could preserve the status quo for the time being. That is probably the smart thing to do. Protecting the status quo in this case, after all, means preserving the rights of everyday people to take on the polluters with the full force of the law. And there is nothing wrong with that.

To read my earlier piece on the legislative debate in Louisiana over legacy lawsuits, read: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/clock-is-ticking-in-fight-to-save-legacy-lawsuits-against-big-oil

Learn more about Rep. Abramson’s conflicts of interest in my blog post from April 19: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/louisiana-lawmakers-financial-ties-to-oil-industry-expose-stunning-conflict-of-interest-in-legacy-lawsuit-battle

The Daily Advertiser and Daily World editorial on legacy lawsuits is here: http://www.dailyworld.com/article/20120511/OPINION/205110301

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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