Louisiana’s Fifth Circuit says coastal lawsuits belong in state court; critics say case is ‘meritless’

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Monday issued a ruling that two lawsuits seeking to make oil companies pay for alleged damage to south Louisiana’s environment belong in state court.

The ruling is considered a victory for the parishes that brought the lawsuits and a setback for the companies, which argued the lawsuits should be heard in federal court. Parishes have filed 42 lawsuits against more than 200 companies. Gov. John Bel Edwards has supported the lawsuits.

The plaintiffs say they believe the companies violated state law and state permits while harming the coastal environment, so the cases belong in state court. Critics of the lawsuit said decisions made decades ago were overseen by the federal government and that Monday’s ruling has nothing to do with the merits of the cases.

“Today’s ruling does nothing to strengthen the factually and legally meritless claims at issue in this litigation,” Melissa Landry, speaking on behalf of the legal teams representing BP America Production Company, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil Pipeline Company and Shell, said in a statement. “In whichever forum these cases are ultimately considered, these flawed legal attacks do not advance meaningful solutions to restore our coast.”

Attorney John Carmouche, who represents many of the local plaintiffs, said the lawsuits allege violations of the Louisiana State and Local Coastal Resources Management Act of 1978 and the plaintiffs are not claiming violations of federal law.

“The parish that is affected should rule on if the laws were violated in their parish,” Carmouche told The Center Square in December.

But companies argue the parishes’ claims rest in part on actions the companies took during World War II, which raises a federal question. According to the Fifth Circuit, the defendants said they didn’t know about the World War II connection until reading a report Plaquemines Parish commissioned in 2018.

The Fifth Circuit found the report restated information the parishes filed before the companies first attempt to remove the cases to federal court in 2013. The companies’ latest attempt to remove the cases is not timely, the court ruled.

“Reaching back in time to sue for decades of federally authorized activities that were lawfully conducted and actively encouraged by these very same government plaintiffs is neither fair nor productive,” Landry said. “Addressing the complex challenges of coastal land loss requires leadership, cooperation, and collaboration. These divisive lawsuits seek to rewrite history and undermine the efforts of hardworking men and women who help power our communities, support our economies, and drive investments in conservation and restoration projects across Louisiana’s working coast.”

Louisiana’s legal climate has been blamed for hurting the state’s economy and costing jobs.

Monday’s decision addresses two cases: Parish of Plaquemines v. Riverwood Production Company, et al. (“Riverwood”) and Parish of Cameron, et al. v. Auster Oil & Gas Incorporated, et al. The companies could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.