Pipeline company must pay lawyers in Bayou Bridge trespass
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A pipeline company must pay attorneys who won $30,000 for three fractional owners of land where the company began work before getting legal permission, the Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled.
The seven justices agreed Thursday that Louisiana’s 1974 Constitution allows attorneys’ fees and litigation costs as part of the compensation to landowners who win eminent domain proceedings.
Justice William J. Crain disagreed with the majority opinion that attorneys in this case are due such fees from Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC, a joint venture of Energy Transfer, which also owns the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Phillips 66.
“We do not comment on legal proceedings,” Energy Transfer spokeswoman Alexis Daniel said in an email on Friday.
The ruling sends the case back to district court to set the amount of fees and costs.
Those will total more than $100,000, said Bill Quigley of New Orleans, who worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights to represent Theda Larson Wright, Peter Aaslestad and his sister, Katherine Aaslestad.
They are among hundreds of people who owned 38 acres expropriated by Bayou Bridge in St. Martin Parish. However, the company began clearing trees and digging trenches before going to court to take the land, the Supreme Court wrote.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling confirms that landowners can prevail against a pipeline company in Louisiana,” Peter Aaslestad said in a news release from the Center, which is based in New York.
While the high court’s ruling set a precedent, it’s unlikely to affect a large number of cases, said Keith B. Hall, a professor of energy law at Louisiana State University’s law school.
“They have to win on something first,” he said Friday.
And, he said, “In most cases it’s hard to beat the right to expropriate.”
The landowners also challenged the state law that lets pipeline companies expropriate land, but lost that part of their case.
Hall said most pipeline companies don’t start work until a court has found that they have a right to expropriate land — and the process is fast. Landowners also can challenge the amount of money offered, but companies generally stick to market value, he said.
“If you offer something a little below market value but then have to go to court, you lose your profit in court costs,” Hall said.
A state district judge awarded the three plaintiffs $75 each — Bayou Bridge’s highest offer — plus an equal amount for the company’s trespassing.
The state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal boosted that to $10,000 each, finding that Bayou Bridge also violated their right to due process.
The pipeline company “went on before filing suit. Everyone knows you can’t do that,” Hall said.
The appeal court’s 4-1 ruling also found that the plaintiffs were entitled to attorney fees and other litigation costs under Louisiana’s expropriation law.
That law doesn’t apply because Bayou Bridge was not acting as a state agency, but the Constitution does apply, Justice James T. Genovese wrote for the majority.
The 1974 Constitution requires full compensation, and was amended to include litigation costs and attorneys’ fees, the opinion said.
A week earlier, a federal judge in Lafayette ruled that three people arrested during a protest on that same piece of land can challenge a state law making it a felony to trespass in the area of a pipeline.
The protesters from New Orleans and Mississippi and a journalist from New York had permission from the Aaslestads, Wright and two other landowners to go onto the land, that lawsuit said.
A separate challenge, filed by people who say they were arrested for protesting in a canoe and a kayak on a waterway near the pipeline, remains in federal court in Baton Rouge.