Report from Louisiana: Trial lawyers make for campaign issues

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – I’ve often said that I don’t think Louisiana’s incumbent Governor John Bel Edwards faces much of a challenge his upcoming bid for re-election, but I may have been wrong.

I’ve spent the past few days in south Louisiana talking to people who think Edwards may not be on as solid ground as I thought. As a Democrat governor in a red state, Edwards has been pretty good at walking the line.  He is pro-life, but then so are his challengers, so for the purposes of this election that issue is a wash.

When you look at the candidates on the other issues, you begin to see some differences. Most of the people I talked to are more concerned about Louisiana’s stagnant economy.

“The oil business?  That’s all in Texas,” one geologist told me. “Edwards and his relationship with trial lawyers is killing it.”

This is an issue that came up last week when the candidates spoke to the Petroleum Club of Morgan City:

“Let’s be clear, our oil and gas industry hasn’t taken a beating from the economy. It’s taken a beating from John Bel Edwards and his trial attorney donors,” Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham stated in a piece released Thursday by his campaign.

Tort reform has been stalled for four years and the state’s economy is stalled with it:

Nevertheless, after four years on hold, the business community is priming for “tort reform” and sees the October elections as their best chance to find the legislators and leaders willing to pass laws that would reduce access to the courthouse for injured individuals and thereby reduce legal costs for businesses.

Republican candidate Ralph Abraham, in an Op-Ed, vows to change that:

Immediately after taking office, Edwards sent a letter to parish leaders threatening that if they didn’t sue oil and gas companies, he would. Never mind that Louisiana oil and gas companies support more than 260,000 jobs and contribute more than $2 billion in annual state taxes. Never mind that those same companies also invest heavily in our coast, including by helping fund critical restoration projects and hurricane protection efforts. Edwards picked his team early on, and he picked trial lawyers over our economy.

Today, there are over 400 “legacy” lawsuits and 42 active coastal lawsuits against over 200 oil and gas companies. They have all been brought by a handful of trial lawyers looking to line their pockets from lucrative contingency contracts, all of whom are John Bel’s biggest campaign donors.

How can we expect our energy and job producers to keep investing in Louisiana and the coastal waters that surround us if our governor and chief executive officer of the State has declared all-out war on the industry?

The consensus among people I talked to is that certainly Louisiana needs a change, but the concern is that the two Republican candidates are going to split the vote so deeply that Edwards may win outright rather than face one of them in a run-off. 

As the campaigns heat up, the economy and the trial lawyers issue seem to be the ones that are inextricably tied and that will define the campaign.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation. Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25 and Twitter @paustin110.