Bill targets suits against megaloads

Idaho House OKs measure on ‘frivolous’ lawsuits

By William L. Spence of the Tribune
March 22, 2011

BOISE – A bill aimed at eliminating “frivolous” megaload lawsuits passed the House on a 53-16 vote Monday and moves to the Senate.

The bill requires opponents to post a bond if they file a lawsuit to block any oversized load permits issued by the Idaho Transportation Department.

The bond would amount to 5 percent of the insured value of the load. If opponents lose the lawsuit, their bond would be forfeited to ITD. The judge could award additional damages if the delay cost the shipping company money.

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, sponsored the bill. He said it was modeled on successful efforts undertaken 20 years ago to limit lawsuits blocking state timber sales.

“This bill has to do with being able to transport commerce through Idaho on highways without being sued,” Harwood said. “This will help stop frivolous lawsuits. I think we’re going in the right direction.”

The measure applies to all oversized load permits statewide. However, Harwood acknowledged it was prompted by the recent lawsuit over four ConocoPhillips megaload shipments from the Port of Lewiston to Montana along U.S. Highway 12.

“That cost the state $106,000 to defend something we knew was the right thing to do,” he said.

An ITD spokesman indicated that was the estimated cost, including the hearing officer’s fee, ITD staff time, a deputy attorney general’s time and the meeting room.

Harwood also said ConocoPhillips had to post a bond for its four oversized loads, in case they did any damage to the road or bridges.

ExxonMobil has proposed shipping 200 or so oversized loads on U.S. 12, and at least three other companies expressed interest in using the route.

Moscow Rep. Shirley Ringo said requiring Idaho citizens to risk potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight megaload permits sets up a “David and Goliath” situation.

“How will ordinary citizens come up with that kind of money,” she wondered. “I think there’s a huge fairness issue here. This denies access to a process that should be available to citizens.”

Ringo reminded lawmakers there were no formal public hearings on the ConocoPhillips or Exxon Mobil proposals.

“There were informational meetings, during which it wasn’t possible to get any comfort level regarding the procedures and no consideration of the special difficulties (associated) with these loads,” she said.

Moscow Rep. Tom Trail said Harwood’s bill was “very discriminatory against businesses and citizens” who live along U.S. 12.

He also noted that, in his conversations with the ITD, he’s been told the megaload permit fees don’t cover all the costs of analyzing the megaloads and issuing the permits.

“So each load going down the highway is being partially subsidized by Idaho taxpayers,” Trail said.

Harwood praised the two oil firms for upgrades and improvements they’ve made along U.S. 12, including paving certain pullouts and burying power and telephone lines.

“They’ve done a lot for that road,” Harwood said. “ITD says they’ve been excellent to work with.”

Trail, Ringo and Lewiston Rep. John Rusche voted against the bill. Rep. Jeff Nesset, Rep. Ken Roberts and Rep. Paul Shepherd voted in favor of it.

The bill includes an emergency clause that puts it into effect as soon as it’s signed.

Spence may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2274.