NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A pipeline company trampled on landowners’ property rights by building a pipeline before getting proper legal authority, a state appeals court ruled Thursday, awarding $10,000 each to three people with fractional ownerships.
“Sure, to a multibillion-dollar pipeline company it’s pocket change, but it means something to the landowners who’ve had to fight this,” said Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Pam Spees, who represented Theda Larson Wright and siblings Peter and Katherine Aaslestad, who are not related to Wright.
However, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles rejected attempts to overturn a state law letting pipeline companies expropriate land. Spees said they were considering whether to appeal that.
An attorney for Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC, which completed the 162-mile (260-kilometer) pipeline last year, and state Attorney General Jeff Landry did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The 3rd Circuit heard arguments in January.
“It’s been a scary, scary road to get to this point,” Peter Aaslestad. He said most people don’t think it’s possible to fight “a company with I-don’t-know-how-many lawyers and gazillions of dollars behind them.”
Thursday’s award is 66 times the $150 each that the trial judge had ordered Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC to pay Wright and the Aaslestads — half for trespass damages and half for the expropriation.
“Even more important than the amount is the strong language the court used,” Spees said.
Bayou Bridge Pipeline “not only trampled Defendants’ due process rights as landowners, it eviscerated the constitutional protections laid out to specifically protect those property rights,” Judge Jonathan Perry wrote for a 4-1 majority.
The judges said the company did so by ordering construction to start before a court found that the expropriation had a “public and necessary purpose.”
Bayou Bridge filed its expropriation petition a day after Peter Aaslestad went to court to try to stop the work, the judges noted, and had “cleared trees and dug on the property for months” before it legally had a right to be there.
Judge Keith Comeaux ruled in late 2018 that work could continue despite the company’s trespass. The 3rd Circuit sent the case back to him to decide attorneys’ fees to be paid to the center.
Aaslestad, of Staunton, Virginia, said he hadn’t really expected to win the expropriation argument.
“It’s really shooting for the stars in a lot of ways, trying to respect property rights in an area where people are placing economic gain for private groups above everything. But it was a significant victory in that there was a stiff rebuke to the way people do business,” he said.
The Aaslestads and Wright are among hundreds of people who own a 38-acre (15-hectare) tract in St. Martin Parish through which the pipeline passes in the environmentally sensitive Atchafalaya Basin. All three live out of state.
Pipeline attorneys have said the there are among nearly 900 owners of the tract. Its two expropriation petitions identified more than 500 whom it either could not find or reach an agreement with, according to Thursday’s decision.
Judge Billy Howard Ezell agreed with the majority that the law is constitutional but wrote that Bayou Bridge did not violate Louisiana’s Constitution. The trial judge’s award of $75 each for trespass had reasonable grounds, he wrote and was not appealed. Had the three appealed that amount, he wrote, “I would have no problem in increasing that award to discourage bad faith behavior as exhibited by Bayou Bridge.”
Aaslestad said he hopes others are encouraged to fight pipeline companies’ eminent domain claims in other parts of the state.
“My hope is that this little victory will help other landowners say, ‘Ah, maybe it is worth resisting what everyone considers inevitable,’ which is carving up the state to export resources to line the pockets of shareholders,” he said.
By JANET McCONNAUGHEY Associated Press