NEW ORLEANS – A federal judge issued a Lone Pine Order earlier this year to identify and cull more than 20,000 potentially meritless claims against clean-up companies that responded to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster.
The order, issued by District Judge Carl J. Barbier for the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana, streamlined issues in the mass tort litigation by shifting the burden from the defendants to the plaintiffs to meet minimum proof requirements.
In the aftermath of the 2010 oil spill, massive litigation took place involving the millions of claimants in the five coastal states impacted by the incident, the companies involved in the use of the Deepwater Horizon platform, and the trustees for the federal and state governments. A separate medical class-action complaint was also filed on behalf of more than 20,000 claimants who claimed to have some injury or ailment because of the use of chemical dispersants by the clean-up contractors such as headaches, nausea, vomiting, respiratory problems, eye irritation, rashes, lesions and burns.
Typically, the burden of proof lies with the defendant when a claim has been made against them; however, a Lone Pine Order can be effective in weeding out meritless claims if the plaintiffs have no evidence to help prove crucial issues in the case.
Keith Hall, associate professor at the Louisiana State University Law Center, told the Louisiana Record that a Lone Pine Order can help to end a case quickly if a plaintiff’s claim lacks merit.
“A Lone Pine Order does this by identifying one or more crucial issues on which the plaintiff will bear the burden of proof and for which the plaintiff can get the evidence on his own without the need to get it from the defendant,” Hall said. “If a plaintiff thinks he has a medical condition, he should be able to get a doctor to verify whether he does, and a Lone Pine Order says to the plaintiff, show us that you have some evidence on that issue.”
If the plaintiff has the medical evidence he needs, then the case can proceed.
From the initial 20,000 claims in the Deepwater Horizon medical class action, only 11 claims remained after the completion of the Lone Pine Order protocol.
Whether more Lone Pine Orders will be issued in the future will depend on the types of cases being litigated. In general, courts have been most willing to issue Lone Pine Orders when a case involves complex scientific or technical issues, and there are a large number of parties involved, Hall said.
“Such cases can be very expensive to litigate and consume a lot of the court’s time,” he said. “In such cases, courts have often felt that there is a big advantage to issuing a Lone Pine Order that can help make sure that the plaintiffs have a least some evidence before letting the case go too far.”
When it comes to scientific and technical evidence in a case, it can be difficult for a judge or jury to resolve the issues because the average person does not have a background in those fields.
“The purpose of expert witnesses is to assist the jury or judge, but sometimes the plaintiff’s expert witness will say one thing and the defendant’s expert will say something different,” Hall said. “If it takes years of study or experience to develop expertise in the field and the two experts give opposite conclusions, the average member of a jury can have a tough time sorting that out.”