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St. Martin v. Mobil Exploration & Producing U.S. Inc.

ELR Citation: 31 ELR 20011
Nos. No. 99-30067, 224 F.3d 402/(5th Cir., 08/16/2000)

The court affirms a district court decision holding oil companies liable for $240,000 in damages for failing to adequately maintain spoil banks on canals operated by them, resulting in damage to a freshwater flotant marsh in Terrebone Parrish, Louisiana. The owners of the marsh filed suit against the companies, who possess canal servitudes across the landowners' property, for restoration and money damages arising out of the marsh's deterioration. The court first holds that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding the landowners' expert witness qualified to testify as to the dynamics within the marsh. The witness' expertise in marshland ecology and in the erosion of vegetative mats in particular, along with his personal observation of the property, sufficiently qualified him to testify as an expert. Moreover, the district court properly considered alternative indices of the testimony's reliability and relevance. The court next holds that the district court had before it an adequate quantum of evidence from which it could conclude that the companies' canals were partially responsible for the observed deterioration of the marsh. The district court did not entirely reject the companies' evidence regarding alternative causes for the observed marsh mat loss. Further, there is nothing in the record to indicate that the court committed clear error in accepting one explanation over another.

The court further holds that the district court correctly interpreted the canal servitude agreements as extending to the current parties and imposing continuing maintenance and compensation obligations on the holders of canal servitudes—the oil companies. The court then upholds the award of $240,000 granted to the landowners. Although the damages exceed the land's purchase price and market value, restoration damages in excess of property value are available where, as here, there is a reason personal to the owner for restoring the original condition or there is a reason to believe that the plaintiff will, in fact, make the repairs.

A dissenting judge would have held that the district court abused its discretion in permitting the landowners' witness to give expert testimony and that the servitude agreement does not impose a duty on the oil companies to maintain spoil banks.

The full text of this opinion is available from ELR (21 pp., ELR Order No. 256).

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Andrew J. Gray III
The Gray Law Firm
Hibernia Tower
One Lakeshore Dr., Ste. 900, Lake Charles LA 70602
(337) 494-0694

Counsel for Defendants
David N. Schell Jr.
Milling, Benson & Woodward
909 Poydras St., Ste. 2300, New Orleans LA 70112
(504) 569-700