BATON ROUGE, La. (Legal Newsline) - The Louisiana Senate voted Tuesday to grant the state's attorney general the power to hire private attorneys on a contingency fee basis.
The Senate voted 21-16 in favor of the bill, introduced by Sen. Joel Chaisson. It would allow Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to use the power to find private attorneys interested in suing BP over the recent oil spill on behalf of the State.
Currently, private attorneys representing the State must be paid on an hourly basis.
Chaisson told his colleagues that the State would have "both hands tied behind our back" for any litigation against BP if the bill doesn't pass, according to The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
The legislation also sets up a tier system for attorneys fees and requires approval of the contingency contract by lawmakers.
"Louisiana's attorney general currently has authority to contract with private attorneys on an hourly fee basis when pursuing legal action on behalf of the state," a letter to senators signed by several business groups states.
"He can and does pursue litigation for a variety of actions. If he needs additional resources, the Legislature can appropriate; and the Legislature can also approve a higher fee schedule to pay for expertise. There is absolutely no need to authorize contingency fee contracts."
The business groups feel contingency fee contracts will allow private attorneys who want to pursue class actions to circumvent federal class action laws that require most class actions to be heard in federal court.
An exception allows suits brought by attorneys general to be heard in state courts. They say that the legislation will encourage more abusive state class actions.
Caldwell's neighbor, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, went to Congress in May to ask for new legislation that would keep state-powered lawsuits against businesses like BP in state courts.
The Louisiana legislation could help Caldwell find firms interested in suing BP. The BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the Louisiana coast April 20, killing 11 workers, and the cause of an underwater leak has yet to be plugged.
Dozens of lawsuits have already been filed against BP.
"The oil spill is simply another high-profile excuse to allow plaintiff attorneys to get contingency fees," said Ginger Sawyer, vice president of the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry.
Sawyer said her group has been fighting attempts at similar legislation for years.
The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform signed the business groups' letter. The ILR owns Legal Newsline.
The bill moved on to the state House of Representatives.
From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.