NAPOLEONVILLE — Plaintiffs in one of five lawsuits filed over a wild well that spewed oil and natural gas in Assumption Parish last year were dealt an early setback when a district judge rejected the option of punitive damages against the Texas-based well operator and a Louisiana oil field service company.
On Monday, Judge Jane Triche-Milazzo of the 23rd Judicial District supported a motion from the well operator, Mantle Oil and Gas LLC, to deny Gerald P. Thibodeaux and Sons Inc. the option to be awarded punitive damages.
The sugar cane farmers leased land where the well was being drilled and alleged their crops were damaged. They sued on Feb. 14, 2011, and sought punitive and other damages, the suit says.
District Judge Thomas Kliebert Jr. has scheduled a hearing on June 20 on the same question in another lawsuit. It was filed against Mantle Oil and a host of others in March by the affected landowners.
Both cases are still in the early stages as are the three other lawsuits. All but one was in state court as of Friday, though attorneys said they are considering consolidating them all in state court for discovery.
Unlike compensatory damages, which are for actual losses, punitive damages are meant to punish and deter bad conduct. They have sometimes led to large and controversial jury awards that have prompted limits from the U.S. Supreme Court and outcry from business leaders.
The Dugas and LeBlanc Co. Ltd. No. 1 well had reached a depth of 7,200 feet near Paincourtville when it blew out Aug. 11, spraying oil, gas, brine, sand and other materials over agricultural fields until Aug. 24.
The blowout forced an 8-mile detour, shut businesses and gave rise to health complaints from nearby residents.
The blowout has resulted in “areas of concern” totaling 190 acres, though the actual size of contamination could shrink greatly, DEQ spokesman Rodney Mallett said.
A Mantle Oil consultant is working under a plan for remediation and monitoring, Mallett said.
Marvin Gros, a plaintiffs’ attorney in another of the suits, said this week that even Kliebert’s ruling may not be the final word on punitive damages until discovery has been conducted and pending investigations into the cause of the blowout are finished.
Gros represents more than 700 residents and businesses in a state court suit claiming health effects and inconvenience from the blowout. He said his case is not seeking punitive damages currently.
What is at issue, Gros explained, is who would be determined to be at fault for the blowout and where that company or persons are based.
Under Louisiana law, punitive damages are allowed in limited circumstances and only when statute authorizes them.
But the law allows punitive damages if the state where the defendant is “domiciled” allows punitive damages and the decisions that led to the damages arose in that state. Texas, which is where Mantle Oil is based, is just one of those states, attorneys said.
Thibodaux and Sons attorney Cody Martin argued just that point Monday before Triche-Milazzo.
Martin cited a 2010 state appeal court ruling that upheld punitive damages against Texas-based Citgo.
M. Taylor Darden, who represents Mantle Oil, argued his client’s case does not meet the statutory criteria to apply Texas law.
In ruling for Mantle Oil, Triche-Milazzo told Martin that she would have to make certain assumptions that are not in the pleadings.
“Right now there is not enough discovery to say. That is what Judge Triche was referring to,” Gros said.
Martin said he is not planning to an appeal.