LIVINGSTON – The Livingston Parish Council on a 7-0 vote Thursday night joined three other Livingston Parish governmental entities in a class action lawsuit against the state Department of Transportation and Development in relation to the August flood.
The Council acted on the recommendation of Parish President Layton Ricks to join the cities of Walker and Denham Springs, along with the Livingston Parish Public School System and two individuals in a lawsuit that targets the DOTD and 21 contractors.
Councilmen Jeff Averett and Tab Lobell were absent.
The lawsuit, initiated by former Walker Mayor Rick Ramsey, alleges that barriers along Interstate 12 played a substantial role in the severe flooding on the north side of the thoroughfare in August.
The barrier was the work was part of the 2009 expansion of Interstate 12 as DOTD’s “Geaux Wider” project to expand the interstate from two to three lanes in each direction.
The lawsuit says a 19-mile concrete barrier, from East Baton Rouge Parish to the Walker area in Livingston Parish is “acting as a man-made flood wall that interrupts the natural flow of surface waters.”
The lawsuit does not request a specific amount of money but asks for “economic and compensatory damages in amounts to be determined at trial.”
Ricks had initially expressed mixed feelings about a lawsuit against the state. He told the council Gov. John Bel Edwards assured him the punitive action would not derail state-funded road projects in Livingston Parish.
“They look at this as a wall built under the Jindal Administration, and they weren’t a part of that,” Ricks said.
Josh Palmintier of the Baton Rouge legal firm of deGravelles, Palmintier, Holthaus & Fruge filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs Jan. 5 in 19th Judiciai District Court in Baton Rouge.
Palmintier estimated 100,000 homes were affected by the flooding and the damages could eventually run from the “tens of millions to hundreds of millions.”
District 2 Councilman Garry “Frog” Talbert had asked if the parish could offer support for the suit without joining as a plaintiff.
He also asked 33 1/3 percent share which would go to the legal firm for fees if the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs. Talbert said he did not oppose the suit, but did not believe the contractors deliberately designed a project that would cause flooding.
“That amount is the cap,” Palmintier said. “The judge decides the plaintiff’s fee.”
Talbert also asked Palmantier if his would want plaintiffs to shell out the difference between the 33 percent and the amount the judge sets.
“Absolutely not,” Palmantier responded. “The judge is the arbitrator of last resort. If he says 20 percent, our fee goes to 20 percent.”
District 9 Councilman Shane Mack said the punitive action was necessary, regardless of the contractor’s intentions.
“I went back and forth. It’s hard to foresee the future, and it would be my hope they didn’t try to develop something that would cause extra flooding, but what’s obvious is that this wall caused homes and businesses to go through extensive flooding,” he said. “I didn’t want to join the suit, but this is one way we can take action to flood out, get contractor and DOTD to review plans, find way to get water to flow better under the interstate.”
Parish Council Chairman Tracy Girlinghouse agreed with a recommendation by Palmantier that the parish enter into the suit to show solidarity with the other entities who have already joined.
“It’s important to do this for solidarity and let people know we support the people of Livingston Parish,” he said. “Not to be coy, but this is an easy decision – the design clearly elevated the water.”
Talbert said he did not disagree that the wall exacerbated flooding.
“But even if the wall wouldn’t have been there, we still would have had widespread, rampant flooding,” he said.
Ramsey told the council that the City of Walker would have filed even if the other entities would not come aboard.
He said the law firm had already invested $100,000 on research by Rice University hydrologist, which backed the former mayor's claims that the interstate design worsened the flood.
“Had we not filed suit, nothing would’ve happened,” Ramsey said. “We only did this to get some relief.
“We did this for the people,” he said. “Lawyers can’t do this for free. If we don’t stand up and make sure DOTD doesn’t recognize this as a flood plan, they’ll make the same mistake again and again. It’s a great design for a desert in the mountains, but not a great design for this area.”
Ramsey told the council the plaintiffs would have a greater chance to win the suit with a larger group involved.
District 4 Councilman John Wascom, who offered the motion to follow the parish president’s recommendation, said the suit had nothing to do with monetary gain.
“It’s to stop a bad design,” he said.
Ricks said he initiated the legal action to protect the people of Livingston Parish.
“I hate lawsuits … and (jokingly) I don’t like lawyers,” he said. “I lost my home. Layton lost his home. Tracy lost his home, and this hit widespread across the parish.
“Every voter looks at the actions of elected officials in Livingston Parish,” Ramsey said. “There are options, and this is the option.”