ReBuild Houston Case Sent Back To Trial Court

A lawsuit over the ReBuild Houston program is back in trial court after the Texas Supreme Court issued an opinion on Friday (June 12) reversing a Court of Appeals decision on the case.

The city of Houston, according to the state Supreme Court, did not sufficiently describe key features in the charter amendment on the ballot that voters narrowly approved in 2010.

Justice John Devine delivered the decision, pointing to the ballot’s omission of the drainage charges which are a key element of the ReBuild street and drainage improvement program.

Currently, the drainage fee is one of the program’s four funding sources, but concerned citizens felt that the ballot obscured the cost and nature of the fee.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of citizens shortly after the 2010 election, asserting that the language on the city’s ballot was misleading. They also alleged that the city did not follow at least two procedural steps for the charter amendment, making it illegal.

In 2012, the city prevailed in the case after a motion for summary judgment. The 14th Court of Appeals upheld this decision.

But the state Supreme Court’s recent opinion reverses this, and Houston’s street and drainage repair plan faces an uncertain future.


Lawyers Face Off On Sugar Vs. High-Fructose Corn Syrup

It’s looking to be a bitter legal battle for the nation’s sweet tooth as the sugar industry and the corn syrup industry fight over each other’s healthfulness claims.

On Wednesday (November 4), attorney W. Mark Lanier, representing sugar industry plaintiffs, and attorney Dan Webb, representing corn refiners, faced off in the trial opener in a Los Angeles federal courtroom.

Lanier accused the producers of high-fructose corn syrup of falsely advertising their product to be just as healthful as sugar. Webb hit back, asserting that sugar-makers have long promulgated junk science and falsehoods.

The legal battle was sparked by an advertisement blitz on TV and print proclaiming that the corn sweetener is natural and no different from sugar. Among the phrases featured in the ads were “nutritionally the same as table sugar” and “your body can’t tell the difference.”

This prompted the Western Sugar Cooperative and other sugar processors to sue a group of corn refiners and farm belt giants in 2011. Among those sued are Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill Inc. The lawsuit seeks $1.5 billion in damages.

The corn refiners responded with a lawsuit of their own, saying that the sugar industry was falsely depicting corn syrup as less healthful than sugar. This lawsuit seeks $530 million.

During the trial opener on Wednesday, the lawyers presented jurors with diverging narratives of the squabble.

Lanier cited a 2004 report from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition linking corn syrup to obesity. This severely damaged the syrup’s performance in the market, and to stop the decline, corn executives decided to sell their product as sugar, he said. This campaign crossed into outright lies, Lanier asserted.

But Webb told jurors that this “phony lawsuit” by the sugar industry was part of its longtime effort for a competitive advantage. He said that in the 1970s, when high-fructose corn syrup became available in stores, sugar began to steadily lose its hold on the market. The sugar industry, not wanting the competition, started to push unsubstantiated claims that corn syrup is “poison” and makes people “fat and stupid”, he said.

Webb added that both sugar and corn syrup are processed, and that the only difference between them is that corn sugar is made from corn.
Prior to their opening statements, both attorneys vetted and selected nine jurors who will decide the case.


Nuisance Cases Against Texas Energy Companies Find Contrasting Results

It is quite common for oil and gas companies to face nuisance lawsuits, especially those wherein plaintiffs claim that the companies’ operations are harmful to health. For such companies and for people who are concerned about oil and gas operations, it is important to know whether these nuisance suits can succeed.

Two recent cases in Texas have shown contrasting results. One, filed against Marathon Oil EF, LLC and Plains Exploration & Production Co., was dismissed due to lack of evidence. The other, which was against Aruba Petroleum Inc., won a jury verdict despite a similar lack of evidence to back similar claims.

In the first case, Michael and Myra Cerny, landowners in Karnes County, filed a lawsuit in 2013 claiming that oilfield operations by Marathon LLC and Plains Co. caused harm to their health. The landowner couple said they were exposed to the operations’ toxic chemicals, dust, and noise that worsened their pre-existing health conditions and affected their home.

The couple, however, disclaimed that they were seeking personal injury damages. In a personal injury case, the plaintiffs would need to present expert testimony to support that their health claims were linked to the oilfield operations. It was then considered that the Cernys were attempting to circumvent this testimony requirement. Instead, they presented affidavits from other professionals including an air quality expert and a toxicologist.

Even so, the trial court dismissed their case for lack of evidence. The San Antonio Court of Appeals agreed to this decision, noting that toxic tort claims like the Cernys’ have to meet proof requirements and be proven with expert testimony.

But a comparable case in Dallas County had the opposite result. It was filed by the Parr family, who made similar claims against Aruba Petroleum. Like the Cernys, the Parrs disclaimed personal injury damages in an attempt to avoid the need for expert testimony. Despite this lack of testimony, the Dallas jury awarded the Parrs $2.9 million in damages.

These contrasting results seem to put in limbo the situation of energy companies in Texas, as well as the citizens who have complaints about them. Currently, the Parr case is on appeal at the Dallas Court of Appeals, and these concerned parties are likely to watch with interest.