Legacy lawsuits more about making green than being green?

Melissa Landry Jun. 28, 2011, 9:27am

Protecting our environment is an important topic for Louisianans. After all, what is a Sportsman's Paradise without the paradise? This is what makes the delays in the cleanup of Louisiana's "legacy" oilfield sites so disturbing.

It appears that a few personal injury lawyers are gaming the system to try and get rich from environmental oilfield claims while cleanup is delayed for years, and sometimes decades. One of the most egregious examples of this is a lawsuit filed in 2002, Corbello v Iowa Production, which led to a $33 million payout on property that still hasn't been cleaned up.

Here is how the game works: A personal injury lawyer finds an oilfield where drilling occurred– perhaps a century ago when extraction techniques were much less sophisticated – and files a lawsuit in a rural courthouse with unrealistic cleanup claims that would cost millions of dollars. The case drags on for years and the defendants end up settling to avoid a wildly unpredictable court verdict or excessive trial costs that could put them out of business.

So in the end, a few lawyers and their clients pocket millions of dollars while nothing gets done to address any actual environmental damages until years after the case has settled. This abusive environmental litigation practice almost seems to be something approaching blackmail — or in these cases, "greenmail."

The legislature believed they were fixing this problem back in 2006 when, after much debate, they enacted a law to make sure that our state's environmental experts and all parties involved would work together to evaluate and remediate oilfield damages. Under the law, known as Act 312, all the money spent on this process was supposed to go to cleanup and payment of reasonable legal and expert fees. But the sad reality is a handful of lawyers are still manipulating the system in an effort to pocket big settlements, rather than get our land cleaned up.

The bottom line is: Act 312 is not working as intended. Of the 250 legacy oilfield lawsuits that have been filed, virtually none of them have been resolved under Act 312 cleanup rules today. There must be a better way. The legislature failed to address the issue during this past legislative session, but we must continue working toward a solution. We cannot afford to keep sending jobs and investments to other states like Texas, where they don't have this problem.

People who honestly want to see real environmental issues be addressed effectively should be distressed to see our well-intentioned environmental laws being abused. "Green" should be a reference to responsible environmental stewardship – not disingenuous lawsuits designed to put "green" into the bank accounts of those who seem to be abusing our legal system for personal profit.

Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch is a non-partisan, non-profit, citizen watchdog group dedicated to stopping lawsuit abuse that hurts Louisiana families and threatens our jobs and health care.

Learn more at www.LLAW.org, or follow us on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/ReformLouisiana.

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