Legacy Oil Field Sites

fifth

By Chase Zachary

On April 18, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit released a published opinion in Guilbeau v. Hess Corp.[1] The court affirmed the application of Louisiana’s subsequent purchaser doctrine to claims for environmental damages allegedly caused by activities of a former mineral lessee prior to the date that the plaintiff owned the property. Although the Fifth Circuit previously reached a similar conclusion in an unpublished decision,[2] Guilbeau is the court’s first precedential opinion addressing the subsequent purchaser doctrine.

As discussed on Kean Miller’s Louisiana Law Blog, here[3] and here,[4] the subsequent purchaser doctrine bars a plaintiff’s claims for property damages that occur prior to the plaintiff’s ownership of the property. The Louisiana Supreme Court provided a “thorough analysis”[5] of the doctrine in Eagle Pipe & Supply, Inc. v. Amerada Hess Corp.[6] There, the court “clarified that damage to property creates a personal right to sue, which unlike a real right, does not transfer to a subsequent purchaser ‘[i]n the absence of an assignment or subrogation.’”[7] However, plaintiffs have argued that the Eagle Pipe opinion did not address whether the subsequent purchaser doctrine applies “to fact situations involving mineral leases or obligations arising out of the Mineral Code.”[8]

The facts of Guilbeau are straightforward. Defendant Hess Corporation’s (“Hess’s”) predecessors operated until 1971 on the property-in-suit under several mineral leases.[9] All of those leases expired in 1973.[10] The plaintiff purchased the property-in-suit in 2007.[11] The “sale did not include any assignment of rights to sue for pre-purchase damages.”[12] After the plaintiff sued Hess for alleged contamination to the property, the federal district court granted Hess’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based on the subsequent purchaser doctrine.[13] The Fifth Circuit affirmed.[14]

Making an “Erie guess” of how the Louisiana Supreme Court would decide the issue,[15] the Fifth Circuit identified a “clear consensus . . . among all Louisiana appellate courts that have considered the issue . . . that the subsequent purchaser rule does apply to cases . . . involving expired mineral leases.”[16] After tracing those Louisiana appellate decisions,[17] the Court found “no occasion to depart from the above-described precedent” and held that the subsequent purchaser doctrine barred the plaintiff’s claims.[18] The Court also noted that “the Louisiana Supreme Court has had multiple opportunities to consider this issue and has repeatedly declined to do so.”[19] Notably, the Fifth Circuit declined to certify the subsequent purchaser issue to the Louisiana Supreme Court on the basis that “[w]hen, as here, the appellate decisions are in accord, the law is not unsettled, and certification is unwarranted.”[20]

The Fifth Circuit is simultaneously considering a companion case, Tureau v. Hess Corp.[21] That suit involves an identical issue—i.e., whether the district court correctly applied the subsequent purchaser doctrine to dismiss claims for alleged property damage against former mineral lessees. The Fifth Circuit previously held Tureau in abeyance pending its decision in Guilbeau, and a decision in Tureau is expected shortly.

The Fifth Circuit’s Guilbeau opinion affirmatively resolves, for Louisiana federal courts, whether the subsequent purchaser doctrine applies to property damage claims against current and former mineral lessees. The decision accordingly provides much-needed certainty to both property owners and oil and gas operators involved in “legacy” litigation.

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[1] No. 16-30971, — F.3d –, 2017 WL 1393709 (5th Cir. Apr. 18, 2017), http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/16/16-30971-CV0.pdf

[2] See Broussard v. Dow Chem. Co., 550 F. App’x 241 (5th Cir. 2013).

[3] http://www.louisianalawblog.com/coastalwetlands-issues/louisiana-supreme-court-expands-judicial-limitations-on-landowner-tort-claims/.

[4] http://www.louisianalawblog.com/energy/louisiana-second-circuit-court-of-appeals-upholds-application-of-subsequent-purchaser-doctrine-in-oilfield-legacy-case/.

[5] Guilbeau, 2017 WL 1393709, at *2.

[6] 79 So. 3d 246 (La. 2011).

[7] Guilbeau, 2017 WL 1393709, at *2 (quoting Eagle Pipe, 79 So. 3d at 279) (emphasis in original).

[8] 79 So. 3d at 281 n.80.

[9] Guilbeau, 2017 WL 1393709, at *1.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at *2.

[17] Id. at *2-4.

[18] Id. at *4.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] No. 16-30970.

marsh-sunset1

By Claire Juneau

Governor John Bel Edwards has sued Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry over Mr. Landry’s refusal to approve certain private legal counsel contracts. Governor Edwards alleges that Mr. Landry is the “chief legal officer of the state,” is “charged with the assertion or protection of any right or interest of [Louisiana],” and “is ethically required by the Rules of Professional Conduct promulgated by the Louisiana Supreme Court to abide by [his] client’s decisions concerning the objective of representation and to consult with [his] client as to the means by which they are to be pursued.” Governor Edwards seeks the immediate issuance of an alternative writ of mandamus compelling Mr. Landry “to perform his statutory ministerial duty to give written approval of the choice of counsel of the executive branch entities…” Governor Edwards alleges that Mr. Landry has rejected most of the contracts “on the grounds that the contracting attorneys should not have agreed not to discriminate in employment and the rendering of services in accordance with Executive Order No. JBE 2016-11.”

Governor Edwards alleges that the procedures for retention and employment of private counsel for the State of Louisiana are found in Louisiana Revised Statute § 42:262 and Louisiana Revised Statute § 49:258. Specifically, Revised Statute § 42:262(F)(1) provides in pertinent part:

In the event it should be necessary to protect the public interest, for any state board or commission to retain or employ any special attorney or counsel to represent it in any special matter for which services any compensation is to be paid, the board or commission may retain or employ such special attorney or counsel solely on written approval of the governor and the attorney general and pay only such compensation as the governor and the attorney general may designate or approve in the written approval.

And Revised Statute § 49:258 provides in pertinent part:

Notwithstanding the provisions of any other law to the contrary and specifically the provisions of any law that authorizes the state or a state agency to appoint, employ, or contract for private legal counsel to represent the state or a state agency, including but not limited to the provisions of R.S. 42:261, 262, and 263, and R.S. 40:1299.39(E), any appointment of private legal counsel to represent the state or a state agency shall be made by the attorney general with the concurrence of the commissioner of administration.

Governor Edwards argues that Revised Statute § 42:262 cannot be read alone and the discretion set forth with respect to boards and commissions is superseded by Revised Statute 49:258, which sets forth a “ministerial process for approval of private counsel, by both the Division of Administration and the Attorney General, and appointment by the Attorney General.” Governor Edwards asserts that Mr. Landry “has refused to perform” this ministerial duty.

A copy of the Petition for Writ of Mandamus can be found here:  Edwards v Landry.

 

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By Matthew B. Smith

The first of many coastal land loss lawsuits filed by Louisiana coastal parishes has proceeded to judgment, with the result being the dismissal of the case based on the failure to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing suit.

Since the filing of the politically-charged Southeastern Louisiana Flood Protection Authority lawsuit, four parishes – Plaquemines, Jefferson, and more recently Cameron and Vermilion – have filed 40 similar lawsuits against oil and gas exploration and production companies, and pipeline companies, alleging that these companies violated the State and Local Coastal Resources Management Act of 1978 (“SLCRMA”) and, in doing so, caused or contributed to coastal land loss. The foundation of the parish plaintiffs’ claims is that the oil and gas companies performed certain activities in Louisiana’s coastal zone either (i) without the Coastal Use Permits required by the SLCRMA or (ii) or in violation of the Coastal Use Permits which were issued under the SLCRMA. Recently, the Louisiana Attorney General and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, Office of Coastal Management (the “Intervenors”) intervened in the lawsuits, joining with the parish plaintiffs in order to ensure the protection of the State’s interests.

The oil and gas company defendants have raised various exceptions to the claims of the parishes and Intervenors, including the defense that the lawsuits are premature because the plaintiffs failed to pursue the administrative remedies available under the SLCRMA and related regulations prior to filing suit. This argument was considered in the case of The Parish of Jefferson v. Atlantic Richfield Company, et al., No. 732-768, 24th Judicial District Court, Jefferson Parish, with Judge Stephen D. Enright, Jr. issuing a Judgment on August 1, 2016 (published on August 8, 2016) agreeing with the oil and gas company defendants and dismissing the claims of Jefferson Parish and the Intervenors as premature for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

In his Judgment, Judge Enright found that a comprehensive administrative remedy exists under the SLCRMA and the Louisiana Administrative Code (particularly La. Admin. Code tit. 43, pt. I sec. 723(D)(1-4)) to address potential violations of Coastal Use Permits. Accordingly, the Court ordered that Jefferson Parish and the Intervenors must pursue and exhaust this administrative remedy process prior to bringing suit in court seeking civil damages. As the Court stated, “in the absence of an exhaustion of administrative remedies, it is yet to be determined whether civil damages exist.”

While Jefferson Parish has indicated that it will file a motion for a new trial and/or appeal to the Louisiana Fifth Circuit, the Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry issued a statement on August 10, 2016, indicating that he will not seek to challenge Judge Enright’s ruling because the ruling is protective of the State’s interest, in that it allows the Louisiana Department of Resources to determine whether any violations of Coastal Use Permits have occurred through the administrative process established by the SLCRMA and the Louisiana Administrative Code. As stated by Attorney General Landry:

addressing the issues associated with permit violations through the administrative process is a cost-effective, efficient way to resolve any violations. That was clearly the purpose of the Legislature creating this regulatory scheme. I believe the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources has been given ample tools by the Legislature to address these issues.

Full Statement.

While a victory for the oil company defendants, it is still expected that additional parishes will file coastal land loss lawsuits. We will continue to report on key developments in these cases.

 

ogw

By Gibbons Addison

On December 8, 2015 the Louisiana Supreme Court attempted to clarify the manifest error appellate review standard. Hayes Fund for the First United Methodist Church of Welsh, LLC v. Kerr McGee Rocky Mountain, LLC, 2014-2592 (La. 12/8/15); — So. 3d –, pitted plaintiff mineral royalty owners against mineral lessee and working interest owner defendants in a dispute over whether the defendants mismanaged and improperly operated two oil and gas wells, causing the plaintiffs lost royalties. The case centered on the testimony and opinions of the experts, with the plaintiffs presenting a single expert to prove that defendants’ actions in drilling and operating the two wells prematurely caused production of water, rather than oil and gas, and therefore resulted in millions of dollars in lost royalties. The defendants called nine witnesses, including five experts, to establish that the water production was not the result of unreasonable or imprudent practices. The district court, after hearing twenty-five days of testimony and receiving hundreds of pages of post-trial memoranda, ruled in favor of the defendants. The district court relied on defendants’ experts in concluding that the plaintiffs failed to prove the defendants’ actions caused diminished oil and gas production.

Whether the defendants’ actions caused the plaintiffs damages is a question of fact, only to be reversed in the event of manifest error. The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal found such error, reversed the district court’s judgment, and rendered a judgment of $13,437,895 for plaintiffs. The Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit, and exhaustively explained in a sixty-eight page decision why the manifest error standard was not met. The main takeaways from the Supreme Court opinion are as follows: the manifest error standard precludes setting aside a trial court’s finding of fact unless the finding is clearly wrong in light of the record reviewed in its entirety. Accordingly, a reviewing court’s decision is not to be based on whether it merely would have found the facts differently. The question is whether the fact-finding conclusion was reasonable, not whether the trial judge or jury was right or wrong. When two permissible views exist, the fact-finder’s selection between them is not clearly wrong or manifestly erroneous.

The Supreme Court undertook an extensive review of the trial court record to determine whether it reasonably supported the district court’s factual findings and the determination that plaintiffs failed to prove their case. The record reasonably supported the district court’s conclusion, and the record did not show clear error in the district court’s choice of defendants’ experts as more credible than plaintiffs’ expert. The function of the court of appeal is to correct errors, not to pick one of many permissible views of the evidence. By making its choice of evidence, the Third Circuit wrongly applied the manifest error standard.

Through its Hayes Fund opinion, the Supreme Court invited the intermediate appellate courts and litigators to properly apply the manifest error standard. Satisfaction of Hayes Fund’s precepts will be crucial to success in appealing and defending trial court fact determinations going forward.

 

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By Tyler Moore Kostal

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit that the New York Times referred to as “The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever” on February 13, 2015, with a finding that the plaintiffs did not state a viable claim for relief.

The Board of Commissioners of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (“SLFPA-E” or “Authority”) filed a lawsuit in the Civil District Court in Orleans Parish, Louisiana, against more than 90 oil and gas and pipeline companies on July 24, 2013.  The SLFPA-E filed the suit individually and as the Board governing the Orleans Levee District, the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District, and the East Jefferson Levee District, contending that it manages and is responsible for more than 150 miles of levees, 50 miles of floodwalls, and numerous drainage structures, pump stations, and floodgates in an area it described as the “Buffer Zone,” which includes coastal wetlands in eastern New Orleans, the Breton Sound Basin, and the Biloxi Marsh.  The SLFPA-E alleged that historical and current oil and gas and pipeline activities in the Buffer Zone, including the construction and use of oil and gas canals and pipeline canals, caused “direct land loss and increased erosion and submergence in the Buffer Zone, resulting in increased storm surge risk, attendant increased flood protection costs, and, thus, damages” to the Authority.

With this lawsuit, the SLFPA-E sought damages and injunctive relief “in the form of abatement and restoration of the coastal land loss” including backfilling and revegetating all canals, “wetlands creation, reef creation, land bridge construction, hydrologic restoration, shoreline protection, structural protection, bank stabilization, and ridge restoration.”

On August 13, 2013, the oil and gas defendants removed this case from state court to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.  On September 10, 2013, the SLFPA-E filed a motion to remand the matter to state court.  On June 27, 2014, the federal court denied the SLFPA-E’s motion to remand.  As a result, this matter continued in federal court, and the court considered a number of dispositive motions.

On February 13, 2015, the federal judge dismissed the wetlands damage lawsuit against 88 remaining oil and gas defendants.  At issue before the court was the defendants’ motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  Rule 12(b)(6) provides that an action may be dismissed “for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”  Therefore, for the Authority’s action to survive, its petition needed to contain sufficient factual matter to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.  A claim is considered facially plausible when the pleaded facts allow the court to draw a reasonable inference that the defendants are liable for the alleged misconduct.  All parties extensively briefed the issues, and the court heard oral argument.  The court then applied this legal standard to each of the causes of action brought by the SLFPA-E in its petition—(1) negligence, (2) strict liability, (3) natural servitude of drain, (4) public nuisance, (5) private nuisance, and (6) breach of contract as a third party beneficiary.

To state a claim for negligence, a plaintiff must establish five elements:  duty, breach, cause-in-fact, scope of liability, and damages.  The Authority failed to show the threshold element of a legal duty owed by defendants.  Finding no legal duty under state law, the court reiterated its prior finding that oil and gas companies do not have a duty under Louisiana law to protect members of the public from the results of coastal erosion allegedly caused by operators that were physically and proximately remote from the Authority or its property.  The court also found that the federal statutes on which the SLFPA-E relied to establish the requisite standard of care—namely the Rivers and Harbors Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Coastal Zone Management Act—were not intended to protect the Authority.  Because the Authority failed to demonstrate that defendants owe a specific duty to protect it from the results of coastal erosion allegedly caused by defendants’ oil and gas activities, the court concluded that the Authority did not state a viable claim for negligence.

A claim for strict liability also requires a showing of a legal duty owed to the plaintiff.  Because the court already determined that defendants do not owe a legal duty to the SLFPA-E to protect it from the results of coastal erosion, the court found that the Authority did not state a viable claim for strict liability.

A claim for natural servitude of drain involves the interference with the natural drainage of surface waters over property—i.e., from an estate situated above (dominant estate) to an estate situated below (servient estate).  The owner of the lower estate may not do anything to prevent the flow of the water, and the owner of the higher estate may not do anything to render the flow more burdensome.  The SLFPA-E alleged that defendants possessed temporary rights of ownership in the lands they dredged to create the canal network and that those lands constituted a dominant estate from which water flowed onto its servient estate.  However, the Authority failed to show that a natural servitude of drain may exist between nonadjacent estates with respect to coastal storm surge.  As such, the court concluded that the Authority did not state a viable claim for natural servitude of drain.

The parties and the court addressed the Authority’s public and private nuisance claims together.  The obligations of neighborhood are the source of nuisance actions in Louisiana.  Generally, the owner of immovable property has the right to use the property as he pleases, but the owner’s right may be limited if the use causes damage to neighbors.  A claim for nuisance requires a showing of (1) a landowner (2) who conducts work on his property (3) that causes damage to his neighbor.  The court determined that the Authority failed to show sufficiently that it is a “neighbor,” within any conventional sense of the word, to any property of defendants.  To recover, the SLFPA-E must have some interest in an immovable “near” the defendant landowners’ immovable property; yet, it did not allege physical proximity of the servient and dominant estates whatsoever.  Moreover, nuisance claims after 1996 require the additional showing of negligence, except for damages resulting from pile driving or blasting with explosives.  Because the Authority did not allege that defendants engaged in pile driving or blasting with explosives, and it failed to state a claim for negligence upon which relief may be granted, the court dismissed the Authority’s claims for public and private nuisance.

For its breach of contract claim, the SLFPA-E characterized some of the dredging permits at issue as “contracts” between defendants and the US Army Corps of Engineers to maintain and restore.  The Authority contended that it is a third party beneficiary of those contracts; however, the Authority failed to present any authority suggesting that a dredging permit issued by the federal government is a contract.  The court noted that neither a permit nor a license is a contract.  Therefore, the court concluded that because the dredging permits do not constitute contracts, the third party beneficiary doctrine is not applicable.  The court additionally found that even if the permits were construed as contracts, the Authority did not establish that it is an intended beneficiary under the terms of the permits.  To be a third party beneficiary to a government contract, a third party must be an intended, rather than an incidental, beneficiary.  As such, the court found that the Authority failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted for breach of contract as a third party beneficiary.

Because the SLFPA-E did not state a viable claim for relief, the court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss and dismissed the Authority’s claims against all remaining defendants with prejudice.  The SLFPA-E filed an appeal from this ruling, and the court’s prior remand ruling, with the Fifth Circuit on February 20, 2015.

The dismissal of this lawsuit by the federal court may not be the final word on coastal erosion lawsuits in Louisiana.  As noted, the SLFPA-E has appealed the court’s dismissal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.  Further, local governmental bodies and private landowners have filed over 30 additional lawsuits against various oil and gas and pipeline entities for related claims.

 

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By Tyler Moore Kostal

As previously reported, the Louisiana Supreme Court heard oral argument in Oleszkowicz v. Exxon Mobil Oil Corporation, et al. and Chauvin v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, et al., regarding the dispute as to whether claims for punitive damages are barred by res judicata. The court recently issued opinions in these cases.

To recap, a jury awarded the plaintiff in the initial Oleszkowicz case compensatory damages for the increased risk of cancer but specifically denied punitive damages. The denial was based on the jury’s express finding that that the defendant had not engaged in wanton or reckless conduct. Soon after that suit, plaintiff actually developed cancer and filed suit again, claiming that his cancer was caused by the same exposure and conduct as the first suit. He sought compensatory damages and renewed his claim for punitive damages. Contrary to the verdict in the first suit, the jury awarded plaintiff $10 million in punitive damages. The defendant appealed, and the court of appeal reduced the punitive damages award but rejected defendant’s argument of res judicata. Instead, the court of appeal found that an exception to res judicata applied, as “the complexity of and convoluted circumstances” of the case constituted “exceptional circumstances.” However, the Louisiana Supreme Court concluded that res judicata bars any re-litigation of the punitive damages claim and that no “exceptional circumstances” exist to justify an exception to res judicata. The court found it undeniable that the plaintiff’s right to bring a future cancer claim in his initial case did not change the fact that he fully prosecuted his punitive damages claim, and the jury, in deciding whether to award such damages, found that the defendant had not engaged in wanton or reckless conduct. While the court noted that the facts are unusual, the case does not involve a complex procedural situation or an unanticipated quirk in the system to which an exception to the general rules of res judicata applies. Because it found that the plaintiff’s punitive damages claim must be dismissed, the court reversed the judgment of the court of appeal.

In Chauvin, the defendant settled the plaintiff’s fear/increased risk claim and received a release from all future claims, except for future cancers. Plaintiff later developed cancer and filed another lawsuit, including a claim for punitive damages. The defendant sought dismissal of all claims barred by plaintiff’s prior settlement. The trial court agreed and granted defendant’s exception of res judicata as to all claims, including punitive damages, other than damages for future cancer. Plaintiff appealed, and the court of appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment as it pertained to punitive damages, finding an exception to res judicata. The Louisiana Supreme Court held that punitive damages relate to conduct and are separate and distinct from compensatory damages related to a specific injury. Because the plaintiff released all punitive damages arising out of the defendant’s alleged misconduct resulting in his exposure to NORM, res judicata bars his subsequent claim for punitive damages and no exception to res judicata applies. The court reversed the decision of the court of appeal and reinstated the trial court’s judgment. The plaintiff sought rehearing from the Louisiana Supreme Court. The court denied rehearing on February 6, 2015.

In sum, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that a jury’s prior finding of no punitive damages, or a prior release of punitive damages, prevents the same plaintiff from later pursuing punitive damages against the same defendant in a subsequent case for the same exposure.

 

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By Tyler Moore Kostal

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently heard oral argument in two cases, Oleszkowicz v. Exxon Mobil Oil Corporation, et al. and Chauvin v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, et al., both involving a plaintiff’s damages for potential exposure to naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). This is the second lawsuit for both plaintiffs against the same defendant, for the same exposure to NORM as in the first suit. Both plaintiffs initially sued (in other matters) for fear/increased risk of cancer and then later sued for developing cancer due to the same potential NORM exposure. The fact that the plaintiffs can bring separate lawsuits for the same exposure is not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether the plaintiffs are entitled to punitive damages for each claim.

In the initial Oleszkowicz case, a jury awarded plaintiff compensatory damages for the increased risk of cancer but specifically denied punitive damages. The denial was based on the jury’s express finding that that the defendant had not engaged in wanton or reckless conduct. Soon after that suit, plaintiff actually developed cancer and filed suit again, claiming that his cancer was caused by the same exposure and conduct as the first suit. He sought compensatory damages and renewed his claim for punitive damages. Contrary to the verdict in the first suit, the jury awarded plaintiff $10 million in punitive damages. The defendant appealed. The court of appeal reduced the punitive damages award but failed to eliminate it entirely, rejecting defendant’s argument of res judicata. Instead, the court of appeal found that “the complexity of and convoluted circumstances” of the case constituted “exceptional circumstances,” thereby relieving plaintiff of the preclusive effect of the final judgment in his first suit. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted defendant’s writ of review, limiting the argument to the issue of res judicata.

The Chauvin case involves essentially the same issue except that, rather than a jury verdict in the first instance, the parties entered into a settlement agreement. The defendant settled plaintiff’s fear/increased risk claim and received a release from all future claims, except for future cancers. Plaintiff later developed cancer and filed another lawsuit, including a claim for punitive damages. The defendant sought dismissal of all claims barred by plaintiff’s prior settlement. The trial court agreed and granted defendant’s exception of res judicata as to all claims, including punitive damages, other than damages for future cancer. Plaintiff appealed, and the court of appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment as it pertained to punitive damages, finding an exception to res judicata. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted defendant’s supervisory writ.

Oral argument was heard in both cases on Monday, October 13, 2014.

 

By Claire Juneau

After the 2003 Corbello decision, the Louisiana legislature attempted to enact a workable procedure for recovering environmental damages arising from oil and gas operations known as Act 312. The main goal of Act 312 was to ensure that property contaminated by oilfield operations would be cleaned up to applicable regulatory standards. Since the enactment of Act 312, very few cases have made it through the Act 312 process. Thus, in an attempt to expedite the identification and remediation of contaminated property, the Louisiana legislature recently passed two new measures revising the Act 312 procedure.

Summary of the New Legislation

The first measure (a House bill enacted as Act 754) amends the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure to provide for:

  • The issuance of an environmental management order (EMO) to expedite site inspections and sampling, and
  • A limited admission of environmental liability that allows defendants to begin to remediate property before trial (limited to the most feasible plan to remediate the property).

The second measure (a Senate bill enacted as Act 779) provides for a number of amendments to Act 312:

  • Allows a plaintiff to provide a notice of intent to investigate potential environmental damage that suspends prescription of the claim for one year upon the notice being provided to LDNR,
  • Requires the plaintiff to identify the alleged environmental damage and the results of any environmental testing if a lawsuit is filed after a notice of intent to investigate is filed,
  • Permits a defendant to request an early preliminary hearing to determine whether there is good cause for it to remain a defendant in the case,
  • Grants subpoena power over agency personnel involved in developing the feasible plan and allows for discovery regarding the development of the plan after a final plan has been submitted,
  • Prohibits ex parte communications with agencies, officials, and contractors who are involved in formulating the feasible plan,
  • Requires the Departments of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resources, along with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), to comment if LDNR approves or structures a preliminary plan that applies regulations other than those of LDNR, and
  • Provides for a waiver of indemnity rights against punitive damages caused by a party who admits limited liability.
     

Continue Reading Act 312 – Louisiana Legislature Passes New Measures to Speed Remediation Process

By Lou Grossman

The Subsequent Purchaser Doctrine is a judicially created limitation on the rights of a current landowner to sue for pre-acquisition damages. For over 160 years, Louisiana courts have held that a current landowner has no right of action to sue for damages to his/her property occurring prior to the date of sale in the absence of an express assignment of that right. In environmental contamination disputes, appellate courts were divided on whether the doctrine should apply to cases involving non-apparent or subsurface property damage.

In a recent 4/3 decision, a majority of the Justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected the notion that property damage must be overt, and held that a landowner has no right to sue for non-apparent damages to land inflicted before the act of sale in the absence of an express assignment of, or subrogation to, that right. Eagle Pipe and Supply, Inc. v. Amerada Hess Corporation, 2010-2267 (La. 10/25/2011) –So.3d –. In reaching this decision, the majority acknowledged 160 years of jurisprudence constante regarding the subsequent purchaser rule and found that the rationale should also extend to the situation where damage to the property is not apparent.

In reaching this decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court also rejected various theories advanced by Eagle Pipe, most notably of which was Eagle Pipe’s continuing tort theory. According to the Court, the presence of alleged contamination on Eagle Pipe’s property was not caused by “overt, persistent and ongoing acts,” but was simply a continuing ill effect from the original tortious acts. As such, it was not a continuing tort and could not give rise to a separate tort claim under that theory.

This decision resolves any dispute among the appellate courts and explicitly limits the rights of current landowners to bring suit for environmental harm inflicted prior to the date they acquired the property, regardless of whether the purchaser could have known of the contamination. Such landowners may still seek claims against prior owners and are further permitted to seek environmental remediation, but private actions and damages have been severely abrogated by the Court’s ruling. Moreover, in rejecting the continuing tort theory, the Court refused to allow private claims for environmental harm to exist in perpetuity, providing greater certainty to industry with respect to tort liabilities.

Notably, the Court’s decision created a sharp divide among the justices which continues to persist. Justice Clark, who authored the majority opinion, and Justice Weimer, who authored the dissent have both provided additional written opinions, days after the original opinion was released. As this dispute continues, it is important to recognize a number of similar cases currently pending before the Court, including two arising from oil and gas exploration and production activities performed pursuant to mineral leases. The Court will continue to face such sharp divisions in ruling on these matters and the issue is far from final resolution.
 

By Brittany L. Buckley

Effective today, October 20, 2011, new permitting and disclosure requirements apply to hydraulic fracturing operations in Louisiana. Known as “fracking” in the oil and gas industry, hydraulic fracturing refers to the process of injecting fluid into tight shale or sandstone formations, which creates fractures in the rock through which oil and gas may travel into the wellbore. When combined with horizontal drilling, fracking allows producers to capture oil and gas reserves that were once thought to be out-of-reach.

Pursuant to the newly-implemented amendment to Subpart I of LAC 43:XIX (Statewide Order 29-B), fracking operators must now apply for and obtain a specific permit for “hydraulic fracture stimulation” from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation before utilizing pressurized fluids to fracture any formation for the purpose of improving its ability to produce hydrocarbons. After obtaining the requisite permit and conducting its fracking operations, the operator must be prepared to publicly disclose (1) the types and volumes of base fluid used during fracking; (2) a detailed list of all additives used in the fluid and the name of the supplier for each type of additive; and (3) a list and concentration of any chemicals contained in the fracking fluid that are regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and reported on Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). The lone exception to these disclosure requirements permits an operator to withhold trade secrets, but the regulations still require the operator to disclose pertinent chemical characteristics of even proprietary constituents used in fracking operations.

To comply with these disclosure requirements, the operator must utilize the Office of Conservation’s new WH-1 Form to disclose the information about the base fluids (discussed above), together with detailed information about the identities and volumes of water supplies used during each phase of fracking operations. In lieu of submitting the WH-1 Form directly to the Office of Conservation, the operator may elect to satisfy its chemical reporting obligations by publishing the required information to an online database that makes the information available to the public free of charge. If utilizing the online option, the operator must also furnish a written statement to the Office of Conservation certifying that all required information has been published in an online registry. FracFocus is one online database specifically endorsed by the new regulation, but the disclosure requirements can also be met by publishing the required information to any other “similar registry.” It is anticipated that the option to satisfy Louisiana’s new disclosure requirements by publishing information to FracFocus will be heavily utilized, as many oil and gas companies have already become accustomed to using this registry to comply with other states’ disclosure regulations.
 

 

 

Continue Reading New Louisiana Disclosure Rules on Hydraulic Fracturing Take Effect 10.20.11