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Next time you are filling up your gas tank, and feeling the pain at the pump, think about this: if the source of your gasoline is Louisiana onshore drilling, then every other time you fill your tank it comes from an oil producer that’s probably been hit by a lawsuit and may have had to pay millions of dollars to get out of it.

How’s that resonate with you while paying nearly four dollars a gallon?

Obviously oil and gas is shipped far and wide and many factors go into the price we ultimately pay at the pump, but the cost of defending against frivolous lawsuits is certainly one of them. And as far as Louisiana onshore oil is concerned, a few lawyers are probably buying yachts with the money they’re making off of these suits, while the rest of us may be deciding whether we can afford to drive to the beach this summer or have to stay home and save on the gas.

The effects of lawsuit abuse are all around us – from schools with “no hug” policies for teachers, to higher food prices, to extra medical bills for unnecessary tests and procedures that we’re subjected to simply because our physicians are afraid of getting sued. Lawsuit abuse impacts everything we do, and in Louisiana it affects our gasoline tanks, too.

Hundreds of small to mid-size Louisiana companies as well as bigger companies across the nation that are involved in exploring for and extracting onshore oil are finding that Louisiana is a bad place to do business because of what are known as “legacy” lawsuits.

These cookie-cutter suits aimed at so-called “legacy” well sites in Louisiana are supposed to help clean up the environment from damage that may have occurred years or decades ago. But the only real impact they’re having is slowing down oil production at a time when we need it most. In fact, onshore Louisiana oilrig activity is stagnant while drilling is much more active in other states such as Texas. According to the state’s independent oil producers association, this is largely due to the fact that our existing laws make Louisiana very attractive to some personal injury lawyers and a great place to play the legacy lawsuit “lottery.”

The worst part is some of the lawyers filing these suits seem to be more interested in cleaning up in court than they are in cleaning up the environment. The effect of these lawsuits – in addition to driving oil jobs and investment to other states and making a handful of Louisiana personal injury lawyers rich – is that where there are drilling-related environmental problems they are not being corrected promptly.

Legacy lawsuits are often filed in a remote parish courtroom claiming hugely exaggerated environmental damages, and the personal injury lawyer in the case seeks to avoid the state’s system for dealing with environmental oilfield claims, called Act 312. If the Act 312 process is avoided in court, then the state environmental damage experts are kept out of the process for years, and there is no reality check on the damage claims that are made by the personal injury lawyers. These lawsuits can drag on for years, delaying environmental cleanup, and then if they are settled, millions of dollars may go in the back pocket of a few lawyers and their clients, rather than fixing the so-called damage.

For example, a few years ago, the Corbello case paid out $33 million in cleanup funds, and the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled the money did not have to be spent to clean up the property damage that was the very basis of the lawsuit! Public outrage led to the creation of a fair system to address land claims, Act 312, but now a few law firms are going around the law to abuse the system and drive oil jobs to Texas and other states. Let’s hope people hear about these job-killing legacy lawsuits and that our legislators jump in to fix the issue right away.

More than a thousand companies involved in the Louisiana onshore oil business have been hit with legacy lawsuits, and these companies produce more than half of our state’s onshore crude. Hence, if Louisiana’s onshore oil exploration is the source of your gasoline, then every other tank of gas in your car is the “lawsuit abuse tankful.”

Tell your friends and neighbors: one-out-of-two “lawsuit abuse tanks of gas” is one-out-of-two too many.

Protecting our environment is an important topic for Louisianans. After all, what is a Sportsman’s Paradise without the paradise? This is what makes the delays in the cleanup of Louisiana’s “legacy” oilfield sites so disturbing.

It appears that a few personal injury lawyers are gaming the system to try and get rich from environmental oilfield claims while cleanup is delayed for years, and sometimes decades. One of the most egregious examples of this is a lawsuit filed in 2002, Corbello v Iowa Production, which led to a $33 million payout on property that still hasn’t been cleaned up.

Here is how the game works: A personal injury lawyer finds an oilfield where drilling occurred– perhaps a century ago when extraction techniques were much less sophisticated – and files a lawsuit in a rural courthouse with unrealistic cleanup claims that would cost millions of dollars. The case drags on for years and the defendants end up settling to avoid a wildly unpredictable court verdict or excessive trial costs that could put them out of business. So in the end, a few lawyers and their clients pocket millions of dollars while nothing gets done to address any actual environmental damages until years after the case has settled. This abusive environmental litigation practice almost seems to be something approaching blackmail — or in these cases, “greenmail.”

The legislature believed they were fixing this problem back in 2006 when, after much debate, they enacted a law to make sure that our state’s environmental experts and all parties involved would work together to evaluate and remediate oilfield damages. Under the law, known as Act 312, all the money spent on this process was supposed to go to cleanup and payment of reasonable legal and expert fees. But the sad reality is a handful of lawyers are still manipulating the system in an effort to pocket big settlements, rather than get our land cleaned up.

The bottom line is: Act 312 is not working as intended. Of the 250 legacy oilfield lawsuits that have been filed, virtually none of them have been resolved under Act 312 cleanup rules today. There must be a better way. The legislature failed to address the issue during this past legislative session, but we must continue working toward a solution. We cannot afford to keep sending jobs and investments to other states like Texas, where they don’t have this problem.

People who honestly want to see real environmental issues be addressed effectively should be distressed to see our well-intentioned environmental laws being abused. “Green” should be a reference to responsible environmental stewardship – not disingenuous lawsuits designed to put “green” into the bank accounts of those who seem to be abusing our legal system for personal profit.

As most people suspect, many personal injury lawyers are on the lookout for new ways to use — and sometimes abuse — the law. At times our laws — an instrument of justice – becomes a vehicle for personal gain. We often hear anecdotal stories about the shenanigans that take place behind the scenes, but rarely do we get to see the absurd tactics used by some personal injury lawyers aired in open court. That is, until now.

A few recent lawsuits have generated national headlines that highlight astonishing examples of lax ethics by some personal injury lawyers and that have led to renewed calls for Congress to investigate the U.S. lawsuit industry.

One of the most egregious examples, recently featured in a New York Times article, shows candid footage in which attorney Steven Donziger openly admits to a slew of questionable tactics he and his legal team used to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation during an ongoing legal battle with Chevron in Ecuador.

Why would he do such a thing? Mr. Donziger is part of a growing trend of plaintiffs’ attorneys who have begun inviting cameras into their “war rooms” to film one-sided documentaries that will later be used to promote their cases and pressure settlements. But after a federal judge forced filmmakers to turn over more than 500 hours of outtakes from the film, “Crude,” Mr. Donziger’s plan backfired and the public got a real behind-the-scenes look at the unethical deception and outright corruption that can happen in multi-billion-dollar cases such as this.

In one outtake, Mr. Donziger discusses plans to stage a huge protest at the courthouse. “We have concluded that we need to do more, politically, to control the court—to pressure the court. We believe they make decisions based on who they fear the most—not based on what the laws should dictate. So what we want to do is take over the court with a massive protest…”

In another outtake, when asked if the judge presiding over the case will be killed if he rules against the plaintiffs, Donziger says, “He might not be, but he thinks he will be, which is just as good.”

And in yet another damning video clip, he argues with his own colleagues who suggest they don’t have enough evidence to show actual contamination in the case. “Hold on a second—this is Ecuador, okay. You can say whatever you want, but at the end of the day, if there’s a thousand people around the courthouse, you’re going to get what you want. I’m sorry, but it’s true… At the end of the day, this is all for the court just a bunch of smoke and mirrors… It really is. We have enough to get money, to win.”

The release of the outtakes has sent “shockwaves through the nation’s legal communities,” wrote one federal judge in New Mexico in a recent opinion, “primarily because the footage shows, with unflattering frankness, inappropriate, unethical and perhaps illegal conduct.”

Meanwhile, another judge described the outtakes as “extraordinary evidence” which suggests that plaintiffs’ lawyers “presented false evidence and engaged in other misconduct.”

This case should not be viewed as a standalone instance of bad behavior. Rather it is a symptom of a legal system that invites, and in many cases rewards, unscrupulous attorneys. While it’s rare that the public gets such a candid view of it, the truth is the personal injury lawyers have been exploiting the legal system in the United States and around the world for years. It’s time that lawmakers in Washington, who say they’re dedicated to reinvigorating the economy and creating jobs, investigate the outrageous litigation practices that have become the norm in our society and drag down our economy.


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