The Louisiana Senate voted 21-16 today to allow Attorney General Buddy Caldwell the power to hire private attorneys with contingency contracts, with the Gulf oil spill giving momentum to a measure that has been dead on arrival in previous years.
Senate Bill 731 by Senate President Joel Chaisson II, D-Destrehan, still faces an uphill battle in the more conservative House of Representatives, where Speaker Jim Tucker has already expressed reservations on a bill that has stirred the traditional legislative rivalry between the plaintiffs bar and the business lobby.
Chaisson, an attorney, called the proposal a "no-brainer," telling members that the state of Louisiana "will have both hands tied behind our back" in impending litigation against BP and other corporate defendants if Caldwell cannot sign contingency contracts. And the Senate president scolded the business community for its opposition. "For them to stand in the way ... is just wrong," Chaisson said.
He detailed several provisions in the proposal intended to prevent abuse: The attorney general would have to certify in writing why his staff could not handle a matter internally. Then he must solicit proposals from multiple firms, with the contracts being subject to approval by legislative oversight committees. The attorney general would retain all control over the litigation. The bill also includes caps on the percentages of damages that outside attorneys could collect.
"There are plenty of safeguards in this bill," Chaisson said.
Forty-eight states -- including Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida -- allow their attorneys general to hire lawyers on contingency, the most common manner of payment for plaintiffs lawyers in civil lawsuits. Civil defense attorneys, like those that work for BP, are paid by the hour.
Caldwell is seeking both the contingency fee power and direct appropriations as he builds a legal team. Gov. Bobby Jindal directed $5 million to Caldwell's office an initial $25 million grant from BP to help cover the state's response effort. The attorney general has not yet filed a lawsuit, though he has asked a state court to order BP to produce information about the spill as the state contemplates its options.
Jindal, whose traditional political alignment is at odds with the plaintiffs bar, has not taken a public position on Chaisson's bill. His aides have indicated that the governor could attempt to have the bill altered to give Caldwell contingency contracting authority only for spill-related litigation. Chaisson said that is unnecessarily limiting.
By Bill Barrow, The Times-Picayune