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Law prof: Parishes likely have better chance to win coastal protection suits in state court

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NEW ORLEANS — A lawsuit claiming that several oil companies did major damage to fragile coastal wetlands in Jefferson Parish is back in state court.

The lawsuit is among 27 alleging damage from oil and gas company canals and waste.

"It'll have an enormously better chance of success" in state district court than in federal court, Louisiana State University law professor Edward Richards said Thursday.

John H. Carmouche, an attorney for the parish, said two of the seven filed by Jefferson Parish and six of the 20 filed by Plaquemines Parish have been moved. The companies got them moved to federal court.

"Now, we have the opportunity to start the appropriate legal process that will lead to the opportunity to start restoring and cleaning up the Louisiana coast," John H. Carmouche, an attorney for the parish, said in an email Thursday.

Attorneys for the oil companies — Anadarko E&P Onshore LLC; Chevron USA Inc. and Chevron USA Holdings Inc.; The Anschutz Corp.; and Stone Energy Corp. — did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the order and reasons handed down Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle.

The judge rejected their argument that the suit should remain in federal court because the work supported their offshore exploration, development and production, noting that none of that work was done offshore.

The suit deals with four companies and one oil field covering less than four square miles, "thus making it commonsensical to try the alleged violations together," he wrote.

Both parishes went to court after the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed a similar suit in 2013 against nearly 100 oil and gas companies. U.S. District Court Nanette Jolivette Brown threw that suit out, ruling that the levee board had no legal right to bring the suit under state or federal laws.

There's a major and critical difference between that suit and those filed by the parishes, Richards said: the parishes own and leased the land in question to the companies, he said. "The Levee Board doesn't have legal relationships with any of the people they sued," he said.

Another big difference is that the levee board's suit covered a many companies and a vast swath of land, while the parish suits are specific. In Louisiana, if numerous defendants might have caused the same damage, it is very hard to collect damages unless the plaintiff can prove each defendant's contribution to the injury, Richards said.

However, he said, the case isn't a slam dunk for the parish — the companies can argue that they acted within the terms of their leases and complied with federal and state periods, and that the parish waited too long to go to court, he said.

"There's arguments about these canals and the like causing land loss dating back at least to the early '80s," he said, and the right to sue over such damages may have expired 10 years "or in some extreme cases 30 years" after that.

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