Appeals court reverses ruling for drilling company in dispute with oyster harvester

By John Breslin | Apr 29, 2019

NEW ORLEANS – An appeals court has ruled in favor of an oyster harvester in his case against the owner of an oil drilling company.

Wade White sued Cox Operating Co. over claims the company strayed from an agreement over driling rights close into where the he had leases. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an earlier judgment for the defendant and remanded the case back to the St. Bernard 34th Judicial District Court and Judge Kirk Vaughn.

White sued for damages over Cox's alleged infringement of his oyster lease. The lower court issued summary judgment in favor of Cox, finding the company's actions were covered by an agreement between the two parties.

White owns multiple oyster leases in St. Bernard County. He entered into the agreement with Cox in 2000, allowing the company to drill near his leases. A second agreement was negotiated in 2012. In total, Wade was paid $275,000.

On April 1, 2012, Wade claims he discovered pilings driven into his leases and traffic that allegedly differed from what was contained in the agreement. Cox agreed and removed the pilings, according to court records. Cox believed the drilling releases protected it from any claim for damages. White filed a petition for damages, while Cox repliied with a demand for breach of contact and a claim for summary judgment.

Judge Roland L. Belsome, the author of the appeals court ruling, noted that the trial court, after hearing oral evidence, found in favor of Cox and ordered no other court make any judgment on the matter, also known as res judicata.

In a prior appeal, Belsome wrote, the same appeals court "reversed the trial court’s judgment granting the exception of res judicata and remanded the matter for an evidentiary hearing."

Cox then filed two motions for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. It dismissed White's claims with prejudice.

"In its motion for summary judgment, Cox argued that the Letter Agreement clearly and unambiguously released Cox from any prospective damages to Mr. White’s oyster beds arising from or related to drilling the additional wells," Belsome wrote. "Cox further concluded that since the terms of the release were clear and unambiguous, extrinsic evidence cannot be used to determine the intent of the parties."

However, the appeals court judge concluded, in an unanimous ruling by the three-judge panel, that White has "provided sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that he did not intend to release Cox from the activities set forth in his lawsuit."

Belsome added, "Accordingly, we find there are genuine issues of material fact regarding the interpretation of the release and the intent of the parties sufficient to defeat summary judgment on Mr. White’s principal demand."

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