Fifth Circuit gives split decision in dredging suits against oil and gas companies

By Sam Knef | Apr 9, 2017

NEW ORLEANS — The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a split decision for more than 80 Louisiana commercial crawfishermen who claimed dredging activities initiated by oil and gas companies in the Atchafalaya Basin caused damage to their fisheries.

In a decision issued March 28, the appeals panel upheld a Western District of Louisiana finding that granted summary judgment to Florida Gas Transmission Co. and denied the plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration.

But regarding defendant Southern Natural Gas Co., the appeals panel reversed the lower court's summary judgment order and granted reconsideration.

The panel included Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, Thomas Reavley and James Graves.  

According to the order, the district court had granted summary judgment finding that the plaintiffs — which included Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West — “did not create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the two companies' activities constituted 'dredging'” to support maritime tort claims.

The plaintiffs had claimed that the defendant companies' previous “canal-dredging activities created spoil banks that damaged” the basin they used.

After several defendants sought to dismiss the suit, the district court held that the plaintiffs “stated a maritime tort claim against Florida Gas, Southern Natural and Dow Chemical Co. by alleging they engaged in dredging activities.”

The district court then dismissed claims against all other defendant companies because of the plaintiffs' failure to allege the others dredged. The plaintiffs appealed the dismissal of these defendants, but the 5th Circuit affirmed in earlier action.

That decision left Florida Gas, Southern Natural, and Dow, along with their insurers, as the remaining defendants.

The panel found that the district court’s failure to reconsider its grant of summary judgment as to Southern Natural in light of “new, conclusive” evidence that the plaintiffs were justified in not presenting earlier, “amounted to an abuse of discretion.”

“… Southern Natural’s candid admission that it dredged the pipeline in question is new evidence that was not available to Plaintiffs at the time of the summary judgment motion,” the order stated.

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