Keogh Cox’s Win in Toledo Bend Litigation Could Have National Impact in Flood Hazard Litigation

In a decision released October 9, 2013, the U.S. Fifth Circuit upheld the grant of the defendants’ Motion to Dismiss by concluding that the Federal Power Act (“FPA”) preempts property damage claims based in Louisiana state tort law where the alleged damage is the result of operations that comply with the FERC-issued license. Simmons v. Sabine River Authority, No. 12-30494, – F.3d – , (5th Cir. 10/09/2013).

This issue, recognized as a question of first impression in the Fifth Circuit, arose in a case where the plaintiffs, all Louisiana owners and residents of property located downstream from the federally-licensed hydroelectric Toledo Bend Dam situated on the Sabine River, sued Sabine River Authority of Louisiana and various Entergy defendants to recover damages for flooding incidents and to enjoin the opening of the Dam’s flood gates in such a way as to cause inundation of the downstream properties.

On behalf of defendants, Keogh Cox moved to dismiss the suit by claiming state tort law claims for damages and injunctive relief interferes with the exclusive authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [“FERC”] to regulate and control the operations of the federally-licensed Toledo Bend project such that the plaintiffs’ claims were preempted under the FPA. The District Court granted the motion after extensive briefing and argument by Keogh Cox attorneys, John P. Wolff, III, Nancy B. Gilbert, Martin E. Golden, and Virginia J. McLin.

In affirming the district court’s ruling, the Fifth Circuit recognized U.S. Supreme Court precedent that has interpreted the FPA as “occupying the field of public water use and power generation except for water use rights.” As a result, in accord with Ninth Circuit law, it interpreted the general savings clause in the FPA [16 U.S.C. § 821] narrowly to exempt only “a state property law regime [that] enables users of streams and wells to obtain proprietary rights in a continuing quantity of water.” The Court also recognized that state damage claims can have the same effect as a state regulation and may serve as a collateral attack on a federal license, such that it refused to interpret the limited savings clause [16 U.S.C. § 803(c)] to permit “state tort law to supplant FERC’s exclusive control of dam operations.” Because “applying state tort law to set the duty of care for the operation of the FERC-licensed project would ‘stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives’ of the FPA,” the Fifth Circuit held plaintiffs’ state law property damages claims were conflict preempted under the FPA.

That a single federal agency should control public water use and dam operations was noted to be especially appropriate because the Toledo Bend Dam spans Texas and Louisiana state lines and, if not preempted, different causes of action and standards of conduct could have been imposed under the laws of the two states.

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