NEW ORLEANS – The battle by trial lawyers looking to pin coastal land loss on energy exploration and oil drilling has taken another turn as one of the attorneys pursuing the controversial litigation is lashing out against a prominent lawsuit abuse critic.
Last week Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, published an editorial lambasting the law firms of Baton Rouge-based Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello and New Orleans-based Jones, Swanson, Huddell & Garrison for their involvement in lawsuits against oil companies for activities that have allegedly led to coastal land loss they claim has endangered parish residents and property owners.
Both firms are veteran filers of “legacy lawsuits” from which they have made millions over the past two decades by targeting oil and energy companies on behalf of private landowners who claim pollution due to energy exploration activities. Now that the Louisiana legislature has made it more difficult for plaintiffs to capture multi-million dollar legacy lawsuit verdicts, law firms have been migrating towards a new venture–filing coastal land loss lawsuits against major oil companies for damage done in allegedly energy extraction activities, including the dredging of canals and near shore oil drilling.
The crux of Landry’s editorial focused on the alleged overlapping of lawsuits brought by John Carmouche, of Talbot, Cartouche & Marcello, on behalf on Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes while Gladstone Jones, of Jones, Swanson, Huddle & Garrison, has filed similar lawsuits on behalf of private property owners in the same parishes.
Landry has been keeping a close eye on law firms who bring such cases who she maintains are more interested in making money than in restoring coastal lands.
“These trial lawyers are clearly in a race to the courthouse to see who can drum up lawsuits and collect their fees the fastest,” she said.
Landry said the coastal lawsuits are similar to legacy lawsuits in that they are following a standard template, but in the case of the coastal lawsuits there is one big distinction–the coastal lawsuits seek damages for the same land loss.
“While we are used to seeing this copycat tactic in legacy litigation, the damages usually pertain to different properties. What is most troubling about the competing litigation filed in Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes is that Jones and Carmouche rely on similar legal theories and seek similar types of damages on the same property. Legally, it appears both lawsuits cannot ultimately be successful,” she said.
Part of what is most troubling to Landry, she has said, is that the lawsuits appear to be based off the same document and neither Jones or Marcello identify particular damages caused by specific incidents.
“On the substantive side of things, neither lawsuit identifies any specific land loss caused by energy exploration activities; they merely provide a comprehensive list of oil wells and other permitted projects undertaken in the area by the defendants,” she said.
When asked about the similarities between the lawsuits Carmouche said he was unaware of any because he was unfamiliar with the lawsuits brought by Jones.
“To be honest with you I haven’t even read [Jones’] lawsuit so I can’t comment one way or the other,” he said.
Carmouche said his law firm is merely helping parishes pursue their rights under Louisiana’s coastal zone management laws.
“The parishes have a fiduciary duty because the statute says that the local district attorney or a parish with an approved coastal zone management program has the fiduciary duty to make sure the laws are enforced. So they have an obligation for the parish to enforce laws and this law is on the books for them to enforce,” he said.
Carmouche characterized Landry’s criticism, particularly the headline of her editorial “Coastal lawsuits aim to grab money, not restore land,” as a "lie."
“Her headline is a lie. There can be no money grab. She should know that. So she writes all of these articles that are not true–statements of the facts, lies, she is borderline on defamation,” he said. “So she needs to wake up and just start reading rather than running her mouth to the newspaper. I mean it is amazing.”
In a later interview, Landry responded to Carmouche’s comments.
“Obviously, Mr. Carmounche is trying to intimidate us, and we will not be deterred by his bullying tactics,” Landry said. “As the state’s leading grassroots legal watchdog group, we have an obligation to speak out against self-serving, job-killing litigation, and that’s exactly what we are going to do.”
The increase in coastal lawsuit filings comes on the heels of the sprawling lawsuit filed in 2013 by Jones on behalf of the Southeast Flood Protection Authority–East seeking similar damages and potentially worth several billion dollars.
Jones did not respond to a request for comment on this story.