An End to Jackpot Justice in Louisiana is Long Overdue
Thanks to a decades-old system of good-ole boy politics and cozy relationships between elected officials and judges, Louisiana has earned one of the worst reputations in the nation for offering “jackpot justice” in the courts. Frivolous and corrupt lawsuits abound.
For example, many businesses in the state are targeted for minor accessibility complaints concerning the Americans with Disabilities Act. These lawsuits are commonly filed without notice to the business operator. Court costs alone are enough to force many small businesses to close – even after one suit.
Similarly, state trial lawyers are known for working behind the scenes to drive up auto insurance costs, forcing more people to drive uninsured. More than half of Louisiana’s drivers have no insurance coverage – meaning a potentially bigger payday for the lawyers who take these cases to trial.
Louisiana was ranked the fifth-worst state by the American Tort Reform Foundation’s 2018-2019 Judicial Hellholes Report. Ridiculous lawsuits are very common in Louisiana because they have a minimum payout of $50,000 for a jury trial in a civil case. That means that no matter how trivial the issue, the punishment may easily outweigh the crime. Trial lawyers and politicians abuse this minimum payout by donating to and electing friendly judges, then abusing the court system in the state to make an easy score.
But the Mardi Gras King of frivolous litigation goes to recent, multiple cases filed against energy companies operating in Louisiana. Separate lawsuits in at least six coastal parishes in Louisiana have been filed against oil companies alleging they are solely responsible for the state’s eroding coastline. The lawsuits ignore dozens of other companies and industries operating along the coast - such as construction, shipping, or other heavy industries.
A cabal of greedy trial lawyers are specifically targeting energy companies, hoping to score big payouts for a costal remediation plan that will likely never be enacted. This is very simply an all-out money grab by trial lawyers.
Aside from the shady dealings of the Louisiana judicial system, there are several problems with these coastal erosion cases. Coastal erosion is not a local or state issue. The EPA and the Interior Department have worked with numerous coastal states for many years trying to help mitigate damage to coastlines.
If such issues are to be brought before a judge or Jury, the federal court system is clearly the proper venue. However, the Louisiana colluders have specifically avoided using the words “climate change” or “global warming” in their court filings.
This was done intentionally by trial lawyers who don’t want to see their cases move to federal courts and more objective jurists. Energy companies have taken action to move these cases to federal court and the venue question is yet to be decided.
Secondly, these lawsuits brought against energy companies are just plain unfair. The lawsuits claim modern-day coastal damage from decades-old drilling projects that have long been shuttered. The litigation ignores how these drilling rigs were all properly permitted, built and inspected by state and federal agencies at the time.
These drilling projects were also touted and encouraged by state officials who cheered on oil and natural gas exploration and viewed energy development in Louisiana as an economic windfall. How and why should companies that were following all the rules of the day – 40 years ago – suddenly be held accountable to arbitrary new standards and accusations decades later? It all reeks of money grabbing.
Additionally, these lawsuits not only cause great harm to one of Louisiana’s most successful industries – energy production – they jeopardize the health of local economies. Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch found the civil court system in Louisiana is responsible for the loss of more than 15,000 jobs a year.
Suing energy companies as the sole entity responsible for coastal erosion might be a great get-rich-quick scheme for trial lawyers, but apparently Governor Edwards is forgetting or is ignoring the needs of thousands of people who are employed by energy companies in the state. America is now a net exporter of oil and natural gas and one of the biggest export facilities in the nation resides in Louisiana.
Staging a series of trials in local courts is no way to properly address complex issues such as whether or how the climate is changing or the degradation of Louisiana’s coastline. It’s clear the proper, fair venue for any legitimate litigation concerning the state’s coastline is the Federal Court system. Evidence, input from the EPA and other federal agencies should be considered as well. It’s time to end the longstanding game of jackpot justice in Louisiana.
Craig Richardson is the president of the Energy & Environment Legal Institute.