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Big Oil loses effort to consolidate Louisiana coastal restoration litigation

The federal multidistrict litigation panel’s decision represents a significant victory for the State of Louisiana and specifically for District Attorney Keith Stutes and for Plaquemines, Jefferson, Cameron, and St. Bernard parishes.

This afternoon, following an eight-minute long hearing on July 26th in Sante Fe, New Mexico, five federal judges on the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) denied a motion filed on behalf of thirteen oil and gas corporations, which had sought to consolidate dozens of different lawsuits related to coastal land loss and damages in Louisiana.

Download the full decision here.

(The Bayou Brief first reported on the pending motion on July 1st in “Wildcatting: Inside the Legal Strategy of Big Oil in Louisiana.”)

The MDL panel’s decision represents a significant victory for the State of Louisiana and specifically for Keith Stutes, the district attorney for Lafayette, Acadia, and Vermillion parishes, and a victory for Plaquemines, Jefferson, Cameron, and St. Bernard parishes. The cases all variously allege, among other things, that these corporations, by illegally violating or not complying with their permits, are at least partially responsible and liable for potentially billions of dollars in environmental damages to the state’s vulnerable coast.

The litigation involves some of the largest and most profitable companies on the planet- BP, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips, who have relied on a series of procedural (and sometimes contradictory) motions to delay trials, in some cases for nearly five years. The industry has previously admitted it is liable for approximately 36% of “wetlands loss in southeastern Louisiana.”

Although the 42 separate cases remain in federal court, split between the Western and Eastern Districts of Louisiana, the plaintiffs are expected to request they all be remanded back to state court, as they all primarily involve questions of state law.

The decision to request centralization (or consolidation) of the cases was largely seen as a dilatory effort, according to independent legal experts. The industry’s lawyers had previously argued that the cases should be considered individually, a position with which the plaintiffs had agreed.

Two different attorneys involved in the litigation used the same word to The Bayou Brief to describe the industry’s appeal to the MDL panel: “charade.” The five judges on the panel apparently agreed.

“The (panel) had no trouble recognizing the most recent efforts of large oil corporations to postpone a trial through procedural maneuvering,” attorney Richard Broussard told The Bayou Brief. “Their effort to further stall a judgment requiring them to clean up their mess was soundly rejected.”

The denial was authored by Judge Midge Rendell, the former First Lady of Pennsylvania and the wife of Gov. Ed Rendell, and was joined by- among others- Judge Charles Breyer, the younger brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, and Judge R. David Proctor, a conservative appointee of George W. Bush in Alabama.

During the past five years, lobbyists, political action committees, and nonprofit organizations affiliated with Big Oil have engaged in a multimillion dollar, coordinated public relations campaign, which has been largely focused on smearing the lawyers representing the plaintiffs and spreading disinformation and industry-funded reports alleging that the economic impacts of the litigation would be catastrophic.

There is no evidence at all that the litigation has negatively impacted the industry or the state’s economy. As The Bayou Brief previously reported in “Rigged: The Lies and Contradictions of Big Oil’s Campaign Against Protecting and Restoring Louisiana’s Coast,” Don Briggs, the former executive director of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA), admitted in a sworn deposition that he could not identify a single job lost as a consequence of the litigation. (Briggs’s son Gifford now serves as LOGA’s director). Indeed, the central argument that the litigation could result in job losses seems to be based entirely off of an off-the-cuff guess made by an Exxon executive.

Moreover, the law clearly states that 100% of any potential award for damages would be provided to the state, under a supervised use agreement, and would be exclusively dedicated to fund coastal restoration projects. Attorneys for the plaintiffs, if successful in a separate round of litigation, would only be compensated based on their merit and the expenses they have incurred. Attorneys for the defendants, however, have already raked in millions in fees.

“What (these companies) did was unlawful,” Broussard said. “Ultimately, Big Oil and not the taxpayers of our state must fund the restoration of their damage.”

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