“Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”
Years ago, Don “Dandy Don” Meredith used to sing these old Willie Nelson lyrics in the final moments of a Monday Night Football game once the losing team was out of options and the outcome was obvious to all. Dandy Don knew exactly when to let this song fly to let that national audience know that the game was, for all intents and purposes, over.
Well, when it comes to the 2014 Legislative Session, you can definitely turn out the lights, but the party is far from over.
Lawsuit reform took center stage this session, and thankfully, several helpful pieces of legislation made their way to the Governor’s desk. Here at LABI, on behalf of our members, we proudly made improving our state’s legal climate one of our top priorities this session. Along with other reform advocates, our team worked tirelessly with dedicated members of the Legislature and administration to make substantive changes to our legal system that will benefit the citizens of this state.
Several high profile lawsuits filed over the last year demanded the attention of policymakers and made the need for these bills readily apparent. In recent years, we have seen hundreds of legacy lawsuits clog up our courts and delay responsible cleanup of property around the state. We have seen contingency fee contracts used more and more commonly by public bodies to file lawsuits pertaining to public recovery, despite court jurisprudence that discourages this type of behavior. These actions became contagious and the trend in recent years has spiraled out of control.
Lawmakers took meaningful steps this session to address some of these issues. The Legislature passed Senate Bill 667 by Sen. Robert Adley (R-Benton) to prioritize cleanup of properties impacted by oil and gas development. This compromise legislation was a balanced approach thanks to thoughtful discussions between our state business community, the energy industry and landowners. Hopefully, this effort will finally stimulate sensible cleanup plans that improve our environment and also encourage increased investment in our economy.
The Legislature also passed House Bill 799 by Rep. Stuart Bishop (R-Lafayette) to codify the ruling of our state courts that prohibit the use of contingency fee contracts by state entities. The legislation also brings much needed transparency to the taxpayer on these contracts and sets reasonable limitations on the legal fees that attorneys can charge.
There are several other examples of a successful session, but perhaps the most discussed example to highlight Louisiana’s need to improve our legal climate is the lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East and the outrageous legal contract that accompanied the lawsuit. Both the lawsuit and contract rankled many a feather in the Capitol, and rightfully so.
As a reminder, this is the lawsuit where one single levee authority broke from the playbook used by all other state levee and coastal authorities. A select few members of this authority decided to quietly hire an attorney with a hefty contingency fee contract and sue 97 oil and gas employers throughout the state and nation. This lawsuit was all a stated attempt to extract a large financial settlement despite wholesale opposition by numerous stakeholders. This “sue and settle” plan prioritizes the desires of a few from one local geographic area over the multi-faceted coastal needs of all other communities. We simply cannot protect our 397-mile-long coast with that type of approach.
Forget the coordination and cooperation our coastal entities have employed for years to tackle this issue. Instead, this one authority tried to divert from the game plan and fracture the team-oriented mindset traditionally held by our other coastal partners.
Wisely, the Legislature stepped in and passed Senate bill 469 by Senator Brett Allain (R-Franklin) to reinforce the fact that only specified governmental agencies under the Coastal Resources Management Act can bring legal claims for allegations about permits in coastal areas. This bill will restore order and coordination to Louisiana’s approach on how best to tackle this coastal challenge. Working collaboratively with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and coastal communities to prioritize and implement our state plan is much more effective than vigilante justice-style lawsuits that try to divide and conquer our stakeholders.
Yes, we can turn out the lights on this successful Legislative session, but the party is far from over.
We can expect numerous challenges in court to anything and everything passed this session in an attempt to strike back at sensible legal reforms. We have seen this type of response before and we will see it again. Until that time, it is appropriate to stop and reflect on a successful Legislative session that strove to address many of our pressing legal issues. On behalf of LABI, I want to say thank you to the numerous stakeholders and officials that worked tirelessly to pass these reforms and encourage you all to stay the course in the days to come.
Or, as Dandy Don Meredith would eloquently sing in a moment like this:
“Turn out the lights, the party’s over. They say that all good things must end. Let’s call it a night, the party’s over. And tomorrow starts the same old thing again.”