NEW ORLEANS – Plaintiffs in the Bayou Corne sinkhole lawsuit have asked for a meeting with the judge overseeing the case, saying they were “mistreated and manipulated by the class counsel and the special master” who is overseeing the $48 million settlement.
Michael Schaff and five other former residents of Bayou Corne, which gained notoriety when a sinkhole formed in the wake a mining mishap and threatened to swallow up nearby homes, will air their grievances in a New Orleans courtroom on April 8.
The move comes after Schaff, a 25-year resident of Bayou Corne, and his neighbors sent a letter to court asking for a private meeting with U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey, who is overseeing the case.
“What we wish to discuss with you is the way we were mistreated and manipulated by Class [Counsel] and the Special Master,” the letter said. “Perhaps some advice from you would help close this chapter in our lives to where will finally be able to understand the process and move on with our lives.”
In response, Zainey scheduled a full-blown hearing, which he has ordered all senior plaintiff lawyers to attend.
When reached for comment Schaff declined to detail the group's grievances, saying the scheduled hearing is the proper venue for such a discussion.
“I am happy the hearing was granted, and me and the rest of the residents look forward to relating what went on,” Schaff said.
Texas Brine agreed to a $48.1 million settlement in the case after an underground salt dome collapsed creating a still growing sinkhole that threatens to swallow up Bayou Corne, the lake community constructed over it. Under the settlement, Texas Brine, which had been running the brine mining operation in the area that led to the collapse, essentially agreed to buy out all homeowners in the affected area.
The plaintiffs filed the letter concerning their complaints about a week after an article published by the Louisiana Record revealed Special Master Shelby Easterly III and Denham Springs lawyer Calvin Fayard, the lead plaintiff's counsel in the case, have a relationship going back years.
According to records in the Orleans Parish Civil District Court, Easterly represented Fayard in a 2005 lawsuit. Federal rules of civil procedure generally dictate that special masters should only be appointed if they can meet the same standard of impartiality as a judge.
When reached for comment Fayard said he did not remember Easterly had represented him in the civil suit, but that he did not believe Easterly should be disqualified from serving as special master in the case. Fayard further said that he did not believe it was his responsibility to point out such a relationship to the court.
Easterly also recommended to Zainey that class counsel be awarded 28 percent of the entire settlement as legal fees. Easterly’s fee recommendation will compensate the top lawyers in the case at a rate of roughly $1,300 an hour for a legal battle that so far has lasted only about three years. The $12 million payday recommendation was decried by some as excessive.
Russell Honoré, a retired Army general who heads The Green Army, a Louisiana environmentalist organization, questioned the relationship between Easterly and Fayard in a Twitter post to followers.
Honoré is not alone in his criticism.
Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, also said the situation is disconcerting.
“It is deeply troubling that some members of the class feel they have been mistreated and manipulated by the very lawyers and Special Master who are supposed to be working in their best interest. Our courts are supposed to serve the victims, not the lawyers and administrators,” she said. “It is our sincere hope that Judge Zainey will take appropriate action to address their concerns. The former residents of Bayou Corne, who have already been through so much, don’t deserve to be victims twice.”
Fayard did not respond to a request for comment on this story.