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Gov. John Bel Edwards and a group of trial lawyers are representing six coastal parishes against the oil and gas industry in 42 absurd lawsuits alleging that drilling and the cutting of canals as far back as 80 years ago are responsible for coastal erosion. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
Liberal New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio made headlines recently when he announced that the city would be suing five major oil companies for damages sustained during Hurricane Sandy, on the theory that the storms were worse because of those companies’ contribution to climate change.
In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards and his fellow trial lawyer cronies have borrowed a page from the same playbook. A group of trial lawyers is representing six coastal parishes against the oil and gas industry in 42 absurd lawsuits alleging that drilling and the cutting of canals as far back as 80 years ago are responsible for coastal erosion.
There’s no proof to support their claim, yet they still hope to win. That’s because, with a judicial system overrun with trial lawyers and judges elected with their generous campaign contributions, the need for proof may be superfluous.
“The governor has unilaterally and, according to some critics, unlawfully sought to hire some of the state’s wealthiest plaintiffs’ lawyers to run the energy industry-targeting litigation,” the American Tort Reform Foundation’s “Judicial Hellholes” report noted.
To appreciate the chief cause of the state’s coastal erosion problem, it’s important to understand that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has long maintained a network of levees that protect the Louisiana Delta region from flooding. On the plus side, this works well in mitigating floods. On the negative side, it works too well in preventing the flooding of the environmentally sensitive coastal wetlands. The occasional flood is crucial in maintaining the wetlands. Deposits of Mississippi River silt accumulate, building up the land. By starving the wetlands of sediment, the levees become a major contributor to coastal erosion.
But despite the known effects of levees, the greedy trial lawyers are only targeting the oil and gas industry, which has been a key driver economic growth in Louisiana for over 100 years. The industry has generated uncounted billions of dollars in royalty payments to Louisiana landowners and tax revenues for state and local governments as well as providing hundreds of thousands of high-wage jobs to generations of Louisianans. Today, that prosperity is under threat, not from the federal government or even low oil prices, but from Louisiana’s own governor, his trial lawyer donors, and the abuse of the legal system.
Abusive lawsuits are a familiar scourge in Louisiana. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform ranks Louisiana dead last in its most recent report on state legal climates. When Edwards was elected governor in November 2015, Louisiana was ranked 7th best for doing business. But the litigious, anti-business environment he helped foster has sent the state into an economic free fall. Just two years removed from the gubernatorial election, “No state is worse for business than Louisiana,” according to a 24/7 Wall St. survey
If the cases remain in Louisiana state courts, it is also not likely to matter that many of the energy projects were undertaken with state incentives and subjected to rigorous regulation. What does matter is that the trial attorneys see the oil and gas industry as a fat cash cow, potentially worth billions. That’s unfortunate for the working people of Louisiana who rightly view the industry as a golden goose, providing high-paying jobs and a substantial tax base.
One way for justice to prevail would be for these cases to be moved to federal courts — where judges are not running for re-election and not prejudiced by special interests. A previous frivolous lawsuit over this issue from the Southwest Louisiana Flood Protection Authority was dismissed by a federal district court in 2015. The decision was upheld by the 5th Circuit and then the Supreme Court just this year. The recent flood of lawsuits instigated by Edwards have no more merit than that case. That’s why the trial lawyers will fight hard to keep the legal venue from being moved out of state courts, knowing that it spells the end of their shakedown.
For the rest of the nation, this is a cautionary tale on the need to keep lawsuit abuse in check. Meanwhile, the people of Louisiana must take back their state from the trial lawyer junta that thwarts a fair and impartial legal system and drives business and jobs away.
Thomas J. Pyle is the President of the American Energy Alliance.