BP Oil Spill: Louisiana Fourth Circuit rules that Oyster Damage Claims arising out of Louisiana Emergency Coastal Protection Response must be tried in Baton Rouge; Case transferred from Plaquemines Parish

Following the massive BP oil spill, the State of Louisiana sought to protect a portion of its wetlands by constructing a massive “sand berm” (levee) just offshore from particular coastal areas.  The berm construction and related dredging activity allegedly caused damages to area oyster beds.  

Oyster leaseholders situated in Plaquemines Parish sued the State of Louisiana and various companies that were involved in the design, planning, construction, management and/or conduct of the dredging operations.  The lawsuit was filed in Plaquemines Parish (25th JDC) – situs of the affected oyster beds.  The State and other defendants filed venue exceptions to transfer the lawsuit to the Parish of East Baton Rouge (19th JDC) consistent with the terms of the leases and statutory law.

Although the oyster leases contained a mandatory forum selection provision requiring suits be brought in 19th JDC, the district court denied the venue exception, holding that the forum selection clause was unenforceable based on a Louisiana statute (Code of Civil Procedure Art. 44) that bars waivers of objections to venue in advance of litigation.

The defendants filed an emergency writ application to the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal which reversed the district court and ordered the oyster damage suit transferred to 19th JDC.  The appellate ruling held in pertinent part:

La. R.S. 13:5104 mandates that a suit alleging damages resulting from the State’s response to a disaster during a declared state of emergency must be filed in the Nineteenth Judicial District, East Baton Rouge Parish. Also the venue provisions of La. R.S. 56:427.1 and 432.1 concerning damages to oyster leases caused by coastal protection activities require venue in the Nineteenth Judicial District.  Furthermore, La. R.S. 49:214.5.6 concerning actions arising under oyster leases also requires venue in the Nineteenth Judicial District.

The ruling was issued on May 4, 2012 and it is not known whether the oyster fishermen will seek a further review by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The case is Pelican Island Oysters, Inc. et al v. State of Louisiana, etc. et al, C.A. No. 58813, in the 25th JDC for the Parish of Plaquemines.