Articles Posted in Class Action

A family is suing BP for the wrongful death of their father as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Incident.  Nedjelka Mjehovic, Vlaho Mjehovic and Borislava Mjehovic have accused BP of negligence that resulted in the wrongful death of their father, Miro Mjehovic, filing suit on his behalf.

Detailed in the complaint, Miro was the captain of a vessel that performed clean-up duties under the direction of BP.  Miros was employed by U.S. Maritime Services of New Orleans but was hired by BP following the Deepwater Horizon Incident.  He was performing his duties off the coast of St. Bernard parish and Plaquemines parish when he came into dermal and airborne contact with crude oil containing volatile compounds which, according to the plaintiffs, are widely regarded as toxic and carcinogenic.  As a result of this alleged contact, Miro developed dermal, respiratory, and cardiopulmonary complications culminating in acquired hemophilia, which he died from in 2012 despite medical care.

In their complaint, the Mjehovics state that their father should have been better protected from hazardous chemical exposure and that BP should have taken such precautions.  The suit claims breach of duty and three counts of negligence, stemming from failure to prevent the Deepwater Horizon explosion, failure to cap the Macondo well properly, and failure to warn personnel and properly equip employees.

Several local oil and gas companies recently received a setback by two federal judges in an ongoing environmental lawsuit filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes. Finding that the claims asserted by the plaintiff-parishes were based in Louisiana law and involved at least one Louisiana-based oil company, U.S. District Court Judges Lance Africk and Ivan Lemelle remanded the lawsuits from federal court back to state court. Filed in November 2013, the defendant oil companies immediately had the lawsuits removed, or switched, to federal court where they hoped to have the dispute resolved. Oftentimes, large and foreign corporations will seek to have their disputes decided in federal court, where judges aren’t elected by State citizens and, thus, will likely be more sympathetic. State court also usually hosts a much more “local” jury which large, foreign corporations fear may risk having the case decided on inappropriately considered evidence. For these reasons, among many others, the defendant oil companies fought hard to keep these lawsuits in federal court. But, as Judges Africk and Lemelle ruled, there just wasn’t enough to satisfy federal jurisdictional requirements.

The lawsuits themselves, filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes, are seeking relief from the courts for environmental damages allegedly caused by the defendant oil companies’ construction of canals through fragile wetlands. Because these lawsuits, and many others like it, arise from facts and circumstances that occurred as long as multiple decades ago, they’re often referred to as “legacy lawsuits.”

Despite the judges’ rulings, a spokesman for Shell, Chevron, and BP, who are all defendants in the lawsuit, maintain that this lawsuit properly belongs in federal court because it involves “important federal issues dealing with navigable waterways and oil, gas and pipeline operations directly affecting mineral production from the Outer Continental Shelf of the United States.”

On February 2nd, after two long years of litigation, the final phase of the BP oil spill trial finally saw its last day in court. This last phase—the penalty phase—served as a chance for attorneys representing both sides to argue for reduction or expansion of BP’s potential fines under the Clean Water Act.

Presiding Judge Carl Barbier of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana limited the amount of potential fines by potentially billions of dollars when he found the size of the spill to be 3.19 million barrels instead of the federal government’s estimate of 4.09 million barrels. This difference represented up to $17.6 billion in fines.

Despite this, Judge Barbier’s ruling on the merits—that BP was “grossly negligent”—bumped their potential liability far beyond the liability under a finding of ordinary negligence. Specifically, a finding a “gross negligence” opened BP up to a statutory maximum of $4,300 for each barrel spilled.

Back in October, we wrote about an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority against eighty-eight oil and gas companies operating off the Louisiana coast. Last Friday, February 13, 2015, this lawsuit saw its final days in court, as Federal Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown dismissed the lawsuit under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for the plaintiff’s failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

The Levee Authority filed this lawsuit ostensibly under its authority to “ensure the physical and operational integrity of the regional flood risk management system.” Their central contention was that the defendant oil and gas companies’ operations “have led to coastal erosion in the Buffer Zone, making south Louisiana more vulnerable to severe weather and flooding.” The Buffer Zone is an area in which the defendant oil companies currently operate and extends from the Mississippi River “through the Breton Sound Basin, the Biloxi Marsh, and the coastal wetlands of eastern New Orleans and up to Lake St. Catherine.”

The Levee Authority’s specific claims were that the defendants dredged a network of access canals for transportation of oil and gas products, which killed off much of the vegetation, caused sedimentation inhibition, erosion, and subsequent submergence of coastal land. Additionally, the Levee Authority claimed that the defendant oil companies failed to properly maintain the access channels and canals, which exacerbated erosion of canal banks, creating wider, deeper canals than permitted.

A Macy’s Department Store in Metairie recently became the subject of a premises liability action filed by a customer who reportedly slipped on a rug while shopping in the store.

The plaintiff reported that, in early December of 2013, she tripped and fell on a rug that was placed on the floor. As a result of her fall, the plaintiff claims that she injured her knee in the process. Attorneys for the plaintiff claim that the placement of the rug “created and represented an unreasonable risk of harm,” as well as demonstrating the merchant’s failure to properly inspect the premises and maintain a reasonably safe condition. The plaintiff seeks over $50,000 in compensatory damages.

The plaintiff’s lawsuit falls under the recognized theory of liability known “premises liability.” Premises liability against merchants is recognized in Louisiana and governed by Louisiana Revised Statutes 9:2800.6. This statute provides: “A merchant owes a duty to persons who use his premises to exercise reasonable care to keep his aisles, passageways, and floors in a reasonably safe condition. This duty includes a reasonable effort to keep the premises free of any hazardous conditions which reasonably my give rise to damage.”

Operating in violation of both the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), ATP Infrastructure Partners LP (ATP-IP) has agreed to pay a $1 million civil penalty to settle a federal lawsuit over illegal discharges of oil and chemicals from an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

The lawsuit, instituted by the United States, was resolved by way of joint judicial enforcement action involving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), and the Justice Department.

In its complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the United States alleged that ATP-IP “violated Section 311(b)(3) of the CWA when oil and other pollutants were discharged into the Gulf of Mexico from the ATP Innovator.” Violation of this provision in the CWA opened up ATP-IP to possible civil penalties. The United States also urged that ATP-IP was liable for injunctive relief under OCSLA, “as the owner of the ATP Innovator … [for] hidden piping configuration [that] was being used to inject a chemical dispersant into the facility’s wastewater discharge outfall pipe to mask excess amounts of oil being discharged into the ocean.”

Operating in violation of both the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), ATP Infrastructure Partners LP (ATP-IP) has agreed to pay a $1 million civil penalty to settle a federal lawsuit over illegal discharges of oil and chemicals from an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

The lawsuit, instituted by the United States, was resolved by way of joint judicial enforcement action involving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), and the Justice Department.

In its complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the United States alleged that ATP-IP “violated Section 311(b)(3) of the CWA when oil and other pollutants were discharged into the Gulf of Mexico from the ATP Innovator.” Violation of this provision in the CWA opened up ATP-IP to possible civil penalties. The United States also urged that ATP-IP was liable for injunctive relief under OCSLA, “as the owner of the ATP Innovator … [for] hidden piping configuration [that] was being used to inject a chemical dispersant into the facility’s wastewater discharge outfall pipe to mask excess amounts of oil being discharged into the ocean.”

As Halloween approaches, I’m reminded of a story I was told growing up–a story that has spread like wildfire and survived the ages. It’s the story of a young child, happily trick-or-treating in his neighborhood and too fixated on his chocolate, sugary boon to care about any potential for harm. As the young child explores his neighborhood, bouncing from home-to-home, he approaches one residence that has opted to hand over candied apples to its trick-or-treaters instead of candy. The young child approaches the home, receives his candied apple in exchange for his promise not to “trick” and then scampers off to his next target home. Later that night, inspecting his bounty, the young child discovers a razor blade in his candied apple–a razor blade that, had he bitten down on it, would’ve caused him serious injury. Those of you reading this are tempted to relegate this story to “urban legend” status, a story designed to scare children into safer Halloween habits. However, I instead encourage you to think about this scenario as a basic, yet well-recognized example, of Products Liability law.

The area of tort law known as Products Liability deals with rights, duties, obligations, and standards associated with the distribution and safety of products. That is, manufacturers are liable for the personal injury or other damage caused by their defective product. Intuitive as it may sound, this was not always the case. Before Louisiana extended this right to injured plaintiffs–the right to seek remuneration for personal injuries caused by defective products–courts often denied injured plaintiffs’ claims due to the legal doctrine of “privity of contract.” Under this doctrine, courts conceived products liability to be a contractual matter, and recovery against the seller was rooted in contractual remedies. Accordingly, this “privity” required that the defendant-manufacturer be a party to the contract of sale in order to provide remedies outside of the law of contracts. Since manufacturers rarely sell their products directly to customers, but instead sell them to retailers who distribute them to the public, manufacturers were often shielded from liability.

Gradually, the conception that products liability was restricted to the realm of contracts started to erode. For example, the Restatement of Torts adopted a provision “providing limited strict liability of the manufacturer of a product for the personal injury damages caused by a defect in the product.” This approach to products liability was later adopted by the Louisiana Supreme Court in Weber v. Fidelity & Cas. Ins. Co. of NY, 250 So. 2d 754 (La. 1971), which provided for manufacturers’ strict liability in tort for their defective/injurious products.

On July 24, 2013, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (Authority) filed suit against 97 oil, gas, and pipeline companies for their alleged contribution to the continuing diminution of Louisiana’s wetlands. This historic lawsuit demands that these companies immediately restore damage to the wetlands, arguing that the Authority’s flood protection system formed by the wetlands “guards millions of people and billions of dollars’ worth of property in south Louisiana from destructive floodwaters.” A 1996 study concluded that the energy industry was both directly and indirectly responsible for 36 percent of wetland loss in Southeastern Louisiana, and more recent studies have apportioned even higher percentages of the loss to the oil and gas industry. This, together with the Authority’s concern that they wouldn’t have adequate resources to operate and maintain the levees when they were handed over to local levee district by the Army Corps of Engineers, prompted the Authority to file suit.

Since its filing, this lawsuit has polarized Louisianans. Hours after suit was initially filed, Governor Bobby Jindal issued a response claiming that the Authority didn’t have the right to file suit without his approval. Governor Jindal also attacked the lawsuit as a “hijacking” of the issue by trial lawyers “who see dollar signs in their future and who are taking advantage of people who want to restore Louisiana’s coast.” On the other side of the debate, Democratic lawmakers seemed to back the lawsuit, finding Governor Jindal’s concerns unfounded and adverse to Louisiana’s legitimate interest in being a steward of its local environment.

In response to this lawsuit, the Louisiana legislature passed Act 544 which expressly strips State and local government entities of any “right or cause of action arising from any activity subject to permitting” under certain Louisiana and Federal law. That is, Act 544 would preclude the Authority’s suit against the oil companies’ activities, at least under the auspices of a local government entity. In written motions, the Authority seeks to have Act 544 declared unconstitutional. This lawsuit has since been removed to Federal Court in New Orleans, where the next ruling will determine whether Act 544 applies to the levee Authority.

Picture this unlikely scenario: An intoxicated motorist is driving his vehicle at speeds well in excess of the speed limit (let’s say, he’s traveling at 100 mph in a 35 mph zone). As the unsafe motorist approaches a downtown intersection, a jay-walking pedestrian begins to cross the street when it is clearly not her turn (the brilliant-orange “don’t walk” hand is flashing and unmistakable). She has her face buried in the daily newspaper and is wearing headphones, unaware of what’s happening around her. What happens next, as you might have expected, is that the speeding, drunken motorist collides with the inattentive pedestrian, causing her significant injuries and tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills.

This hypothetical accident was intended to illustrate the legal problem of the “foolhardy” plaintiff–the individual who suffers an injury at the hands of another, though her inattentive, negligent behavior also has contributed to the damage. In layman’s terms, both the motorist and the pedestrian are at fault here. The driver should understand that operating a vehicle at high rates of speed while intoxicated is unsafe and endangers the public. Similarly, the pedestrian should know that she must obey traffic signals and should pay attention to her surroundings as she crosses the street. Thus, both the motorist and the pedestrian have a “duty” to act as a reasonably responsible driver and pedestrian respectively. Under this scenario, however, where both actors to this dramatic collision have breached their duties to act reasonably, causing this accident, who is responsible? Is the pedestrian permitted to recover damages (money) despite having negligently contributed to this accident and her resulting injuries?

Prior to 1980, Louisiana followed the traditional common-law approach to solving the issue of the “foolhardy plaintiff”–a plaintiff whose negligence contributed to his injury. This common-law approach was known as contributory negligence and operated as a total bar to recovery in a negligence action. While it sounds unduly restrictive of a plaintiffs’ ability to bring and maintain actions for injuries they suffered, this comparative negligence regime required more than just showing that the plaintiff contributed in some way to the injury–instead, the plaintiff had to be legally negligent. They must have had a standard of care (a duty), which, when breached, caused and contributed to their injury and was within the scope of foreseeable risk.

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