Attorneys who represented Bayou Corne residents in a class-action lawsuit over the Assumption Parish sinkhole are asking a federal judge in New Orleans for legal fees that amount to 25 percent of the $48.1 million settlement award.
The request, if granted, works out to about $12.03 million in attorneys’ fees split among the few dozen lawyers involved in the two-and-a-half-year-old litigation against Texas Brine, the Houston company many blame for the now 31-acre sinkhole.
The lawyers also are requesting reimbursement of joint costs in working up the case, which totals another $291,566, the case’s special master says.
“The value for which the case eventually settled was remarkable, and it provided an extremely satisfactory benefit to members of the class,” the attorneys wrote in a Feb. 3 motion to the court.
Texas Brine and its insurers agreed to set aside the settlement fund to pay for a buyout of about 86 properties in Bayou Corne and to issue separate checks to residents for mental anguish and other damages.
Nearly all buy-outs had been closed by early February, according to court papers.
Louisiana Office of Conservation scientists believe years of salt dome mining by Texas Brine triggered formation of the sinkhole when that mining got too close to the outer face of the dome. A breach opened up in the hollow cavern created by years of past mining and surrounding sediments filled the cavity.
The sinkhole’s formation also opened natural deposits of methane gas that pose an explosive risk, scientists claimed, if the invisible and odorless gas built up inside or under the homes.
The threat of the sinkhole and the gas and the weight of an uncertain future led many in the community of 150 families to seek buyouts and leave.
Attorneys representing property owners in the class action suit have said they received replacement value for their homes, many of which were on the water in scenic Bayou Corne.
U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey had not ruled on the attorneys’ request for 25 percent of the settlement amount as of Friday.
It was not clear Friday how much of the settlement fund remains after buyout and damages checks were cut. But before those checks started going out, Zainey set aside 28 percent of the settlement award on Aug. 28 for attorneys’ fees and costs.
A. Shelby Easterly III, the case’s special master who reviewed damage claims and handled other matters in the case, concurred Feb. 4 with the attorneys’ requests for compensation.
Easterly spoke highly of the attorneys, who he said compressed more than four years of work into about two years, and were able to coalesce into what amounted to a new law firm to divide the work and get it done.
“These results have been accomplished in an expedient manner yielding a settlement in what may be record time for similar actions,” wrote Easterly, a Denham Springs lawyer.
Sonny Cranch, Texas Brine spokesman, said Friday that the company takes no position on the legal fees, noting the fees were part of the original settlement agreement.
The attorneys want to divide the fees evenly among the four lawyers in the class counsel, who are akin to the case’s leadership team and often a case’s deep pockets, and the other private attorneys.
The class counsel are: Calvin C. Fayard Jr., of Fayard & Honeycutt in Denham Springs; Lawrence J. Centola III, of Martzell & Bickford of New Orleans; Matthew B. Moreland, of Becnel Law Firm of Reserve; and Richard Perque, of Richard Perque LLC.
Attorneys for the class could not be reached by deadline Friday, but Blaine LeCesne, a Loyola University of New Orleans law professor who specializes in class-action legal trends in Louisiana, said that 25 percent for attorneys’ fees is reasonable given the complexity of the case and the size of the award.
“In any kind of contingency fee arrangement, there is enormous financial risk that the attorneys are undertaking because they could actually end up with nothing and have to eat all those hours and expenses,” LeCesne said.
LeCesne added that the sinkhole plaintiffs’ attorneys, in their request for fees, said the case required more than 8,000 attorney hours and more than 700 support staff hours and incurred nearly $300,000 costs. He estimated the attorneys, altogether, probably put about $2 million at risk in the litigation.
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