From: Janet McConnaughey, Associated Press
Published October 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Louisiana Supreme Court Throws Out $1.3 Billion Judgment for Oyster Fishers

NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana Supreme Court threw out a $1.3 billion judgment this week for oyster fishers who claimed that a coastal restoration project ruined their businesses.


The 130 oyster fishers, who leased water bottoms in Breton Sound, sued the state after a 1991 freshwater diversion program channeled some Mississippi River water and sediment into the sound, destroying their oyster beds.


A Plaquemines Parish jury awarded the oyster fishers $1.3 billion in 2000, but the high court reversed that decision this week, saying all but 12 of the oyster fishers' leases renounced any legal claim to damages from such projects.


The plaintiffs who had the 12 leases without such clauses waited too long to sue, the court ruled.


The ruling could affect four similar lawsuits still in court, said Andrew Wilson, a private attorney representing the state in these cases.


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"It's a major step in the state's efforts toward keeping the coast from washing away," he said.


One of the oyster fishers, Kenneth Fox, criticized the ruling, saying people like him had tended their leases for years, often decades, turning them from empty water bottom to profitable holdings under contracts with the state.


"There was nothing in it to tell us the state was going to destroy our leases. We had a legal, binding contract with the state of Louisiana," he said.


Among lawsuits that could be affected is one in which another group of southeast Louisiana oyster fishers won a $661 million judgment against the state. That decision has since been overturned and sent back for a jury trial.


The state undertook the diversion project to help restore its quickly eroding coast.


A coastal expert said this week that many shore restoration projects have been on hold or delayed because of the oyster bed disputes.


"That's tremendous good news," Shea Penland of the University of New Orleans said of this week's ruling. "We can move forward and plan the big projects, plan the ones that will save coastal Louisiana."


Justice John L. Weimer wrote in a concurring opinion that reversing wetland erosion is important to the viability of the oyster industry as a whole.


"Although there may be loss by individuals on private leases caused by the freshwater, losses may be offset by oyster production on public grounds, which the evidence established increased dramatically," he wrote.


Source: Associated Press


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