Big oil companies fret about biased jury in coastal land-loss lawsuit in Louisiana

Big oil companies say they’ll face a biased jury when a trial kicks off this month over the alleged loss of coastal land in a Louisiana town — where the jurors could all benefit financially from a ruling against the corporations.

Shell Oil Co., BP America Production Co. and Hilcorp Energy Co. petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the start of the trial, hoping to argue before the justices for a change of venue over due process concerns.

In the legal filing, the companies argued the town of Cameron Parish, located in the southwest corner of Louisiana, is composed of about 4,000 residents who make up the jury pool and who could all financially benefit from a ruling against the corporations.

“This unprecedented situation threatens the clearly established federal due-process rights of these defendants to have their case adjudicated by a neutral, disinterested decisionmaker,” the companies’ brief reads.

“Every single one of them has a personal and financial interest in a verdict for the Parish because any award will go to restore land loss in the Parish and — according to the Parish itself — will be used to create jobs, economic opportunities, and higher property values for residents,” the brief said the residents.

The high court denied the change of venue request this month.

A lawyer representing the companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

City officials say the companies ran afoul of Louisiana’s State and Local Coastal Resources Management Act of 1978 in their operations in the area over several decades. They say the companies should pay for the damage they allegedly caused in land loss.

They also say there’s no evidence that residents in Cameron Parish would be biased against the energy companies.

“The oil industry employs a substantial number of Cameron Parish residents who likely have personal interests at odds with the interests of the Parish. Throughout the years, Cameron Parish’s well-known Louisiana Fur and Wildlife Festival has celebrated the oil industry and voiced its appreciation for the industry’s support of the Parish and its residents,” the parish’s filing read.

Eighty percent of the town’s land is coastal. According to predictions, it could lose up to 40% of its land area in the next 50 years due to major hurricanes. Already the population has fallen from 9,991 to 5,080, according to court documents.

Lower courts in the state refused to move the trial to a different venue, saying the companies didn’t meet a burden of proof to show potential juror bias.

“After reviewing the memoranda, evidence, jurisprudence, and the law, the Court finds that the defendants have failed to meet their burden of proof to warrant a change in venue in this case,” the state district court order read.

The litigation is one of the first to go to trial where several localities in the state have sued oil companies claiming their operations have contributed to coastal erosion.

David Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, says the oil companies will get a fair trial, noting tests the judicial system applies to ensure jurors are not biased.

“There are multiple fail safes. To start, the judge will oversee the selection of the jury and will be quite attentive to any manifestation of bias. Then the judge will assess the fairness of the jury’s decision, and has the power to decide to void a jury if the judge thinks that the jury was wrong. And finally, there are multiple levels of appellate review, and appellate courts will scrutinize a jury verdict if there is any evidence of bias,” Mr. Vladeck said.

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