Legal Awards 2021: Profile – Walter Leger Jr
We take an in-depth look at the career of Lawyer Monthly's Admiralty & Maritime Lawyer of the Year.
Walter Leger, Jr has been called “a larger-than-life legal legend” by BIZ Magazine. The Louisiana Bar Journal, celebrating the 300th anniversary of New Orleans and Louisiana listed him as one of the 12 “Louisiana Legal Legends”. The other “legal legends” included the first governor of Louisiana, a US Supreme Court Chief Justice, a Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice, and other historically prominent Louisiana lawyers. He and the Louisiana Supreme Court Justice are the two only living honorees. Much of this recognition has come from his service to the community as well as the legal profession and his clients.
The New Orleans Bar Journal in an article citing his extensive litigation experience and his community service quoted Louisiana’s governor, a senator, and a prominent news journalist. Former Governor Kathleen Blanco said: “Walter Leger played an essential role in the early years of Louisiana’s recovery [from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita]. As an LRA Board Member he went above and beyond the call of duty, travelling to our nation’s Capital to fight for the resources necessary to help our people rebuild…”
US Senator Mary Landrieu said of his work over the years: “Walter Leger is a pillar of the New Orleans community and a tireless advocate for our state. From leading the New Orleans Regional Chamber of Commerce to making his mark as one of Louisiana’s finest attorneys, Walter brings an excellence to everything he does… Without question, Louisiana is a better place because of Walter Leger…”
Further, WWL radio talk show host Garland Robinette – famous for championing the recovery from Hurricane Katrina – said: “I’ve interviewed multiple Presidents, Mother Teresa, have known Popes … but I don’t think I’ve met anyone as extraordinary as Walter Leger.” (Editor’s Note: Leger thinks that quote is somewhat exaggerated).
The Path to Maritime Law
Walter Leger, Jr’s path to maritime law is not surprising. His grandfather, Captain Mitchell Leger, was a troop and cargo ship captain during World War II. He sailed primarily in the European theater. His other grandfather was a sailor in United States Navy in the Pacific theater. Walter’s father, inspired by his dad, became a mariner as well. He attended the Maritime College of New York. He was a member of the Navy reserve and sailed the high seas in the Merchant Marine working his way up from Ordinary Seaman to ship’s Mate and eventually obtaining a Ship Master’s License like his father before him.
After marriage, he wanted to stay closer to home to raise his family. In those days mariners were gone for many months at a time with no communication back home. After several attempts, the senior Walter Leger entered the apprentice program to become a Mississippi River Bar Pilot. These pilots direct the operation of large seagoing ships from the Gulf of Mexico through the shallow waters of the mouth of the Mississippi River on the way upriver to various ports in New Orleans and beyond.
Walter Leger, Jr has been called “a larger-than-life legal legend” by BIZ Magazine.
The junior Leger had a youthful interest in public service and politics. But the “salt in his blood”, and his dad, directed him toward maritime law. After graduating from high school with honors and receiving numerous honors while pursuing a degree from Louisiana State University, he graduated from Tulane University School of Law with a concentration in Maritime Law. There he was Managing Editor of the Tulane Maritime Law Journal and received the American Admiralty Law Institute Award for highest grades.
Upon graduation and interviewing with major maritime law firms, he joined the Phelps Dunbar law firm in New Orleans, one of the most prominent and oldest maritime law firms in the United States. The focus of his early practice involved the representation of large oceangoing ships, tugboats and barges on the Mississippi River and the thriving offshore oil exploration industry in the coastal marsh waters of Louisiana and the deep waters offshore. He worked with what he considered to be some of the top maritime lawyers in the United States, and perhaps the world.
He later left to form his own firm joining up with one of his former classmates, who had been at another highly regarded maritime law firm. In the years that followed, Leger was involved in nearly every major maritime litigation in Louisiana and the United States.
Since 1981, Leger has been recognised as a “Proctor in Admiralty” by the Maritime Law Association of the United States. He is a member of the Southeast Admiralty Law Institute and the maritime law sections of the American Association of Justice, the Louisiana Association of Justice and other bar organizations. Over the years he has lectured extensively and written on maritime law and complex litigation topics at Harvard Law School, Tulane Law School, Loyola Law School, the University of New Orleans, LSU Law School, and various law associations. He is Past President of the New Orleans Bar Association and the New Orleans Bar Foundation and has served in numerous capacities in other bar and legal associations.
Leger was involved in nearly every major maritime litigation in Louisiana and the United States.
Notable Maritime Cases
Notably, Leger was Special Trial Counsel in the relatively recent BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill case and was a member of the Phase I and Phase II Trial Team. He was the lead negotiator on behalf of Louisiana local governments in the historic government settlements with BP. He represented hundreds of businesses, citizens, and governments in the litigation. In the early stages of the litigation, Leger was asked by US Senator Mary Landrieu to work with and advise attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who had been brought in by BP to attempt to develop a mass settlement with the numerous claimants involved. Ultimately, this program and the successor program exceeded more than $65 billion to businesses, fishermen, and government entities. This case is undoubtedly the largest maritime environmental disaster in history. As part of the discovery team, Leger and others travelled to London to depose corporate executives of BP in addition to the 300 depositions taken in New Orleans.
But Leger’s involvement in high profile maritime disasters dates to 1980 when a Peruvian cargo ship, the M/V INCA TUPAC YUPANQUI, lost steerage and collided with a butane barge on the Mississippi River. Leger had only months before formed his own firm and was asked by a lawyer representing three of the horribly injured and burned Peruvian seamen to represent them. He had previously represented primarily vessel and shipowner interests. The case was anything but routine, as it turned out that the ship was owned by the Peruvian government, and the collision became a major political issue in the first presidential elections in Peru in many years.
The young lawyer suddenly found himself against many of the top maritime lawyers in the country. After weeks of depositions in New Orleans, lawyers travelled to Peru and Germany for depositions. The young Leger had to borrow money to finance the travel and litigation. While in Peru, they faced demonstrations and political intrigue.
The young lawyer suddenly found himself against many of the top maritime lawyers in the country.
One of the more mysterious cases in which Leger was involved was the case of the M/V POET. The POET, a cargo ship with 25 crewmen, left the port of Philadelphia bound for Egypt. It disappeared and was never heard from again. The most extensive search in maritime history followed. Nothing was ever found. Leger represented the families of five of the crew members. There was never real closure for them, as rumors circulated in the news media and in the maritime community that either the ship had been involved in the famous “arms for hostages” scandal or that it had been taken by pirates. This disappearance remains one of the mysteries of the sea.
A relatively minor collision of two ships on the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet generated a case of major legal import. When the M/V TESTBANK and the M/V SEA DANIEL collided, a container full of toxic chemicals spilled into the waters of the Gulf Outlet, causing toxic exposure to the important seafood, shrimping and oyster industry in that area. Leger was appointed chairman of the Plaintiffs Steering Committee by the Federal Judge overseeing the case. The case involved more than 50 lawyers and thousands of members of the seafood industry.
While the court ultimately ruled in favor of claims of oystermen and fishermen, it historically denied the claims of land-based seafood restaurants, marinas, tackle shops, etc. which had sustained economic losses but no physical damage. The ruling was based on a long-held maritime concept known as the Robins Drydock rule. Leger appealed the case to the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and ultimately the appeal was heard en banc. To this day, this case and its progeny continue to guide the determination of economic loss and business damages in maritime cases.
Interestingly, the unfairness of the TESTBANK/Robins Drydock rule was highlighted in the legal aftermath of the EXXON VALDEZ oil spill in Alaska, which led Congress to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 – which ultimately played such an important role in the BP/DEEPWATER HORIZON oil spill.
To this day, this case and its progeny continue to guide the determination of economic loss and business damages in maritime cases.
In 1997, ten shopping days before Christmas, a Chinese freighter – the M/V BRIGHTFILD – lost steering power on the Mississippi River and crashed into a shopping center located on the riverfront in downtown New Orleans. Leger was appointed by the federal district judge as Co-Lead Counsel on behalf of the many businesses damaged. It was determined that the ship was owned by the communist Chinese government. Leger proved that the captain and officers of the ship had lied under oath before the United States Coast Guard and had destroyed logs and documents of the ship. The litigation team travelled to Hong Kong to depose and expose corporate officials of the CCP ownership.
Other notable maritime cases handled by Leger include the M/V TEXACO NORTH DAKOTA (an oil tanker which hit a post hurricane damaged and unlit oil platform off the coast of Louisiana while headed to Texas, resulting in a fiery explosion.); M/V MISS CHRIS/Claiborne Ave. Bridge (an allision and collapse of a motor vehicle bridge involving a tug and barge over a ship channel); M/V LEE III/M/V ZIM MEXICO III (A collision in the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River causing the deaths of the entire crew of one of the vessels and closure of the river and port) and M/V MEL OLIVER / M/V TINTAMARA (Leger was appointed by the Federal Judge as a member of the Claimants’ Steering Committee, representing businesses and governmental entities damaged because of the collision of a ship and barges causing a massive oil spill in the Mississippi River).
He presently represents the families of three of the men who perished in the capsizing and sinking of the M/V SEACOR POWER in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana in 2021.
Leger has represented individuals, businesses, port authorities, towing companies, barge owners, shipyards, and ship pilots, officers, and crew in courts and Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board hearings.
Other Notable Cases
Leger’s experience and leadership extends far beyond admiralty and maritime law. In the historic Castano v American Tobacco litigation, he served on the Trial Team, Discovery Committee, Science Committee and Administrative Committee. This case was brought against the tobacco and cigarette industry in numerous states. Leger also served as counsel to the Attorney General of the state of Louisiana, in litigation against the tobacco industry. The Castano litigation and the Attorney General lawsuits resulted in the largest settlement in history at approximately $250 billion on behalf of the various states.
The Scott v. American Tobacco litigation was a class action tried against the tobacco industry. Leger was one of the Trial Team leaders. The case, from jury selection to verdict, took approximately three years to try. It stands as the longest jury trial in the history of Louisiana and resulted in a verdict of over $600 million. The judgment now funds smoking cessation programs in the state of Louisiana.
In Louisiana breast implant litigation, Leger was Class Counsel. After Hurricane Katrina, he was appointed to Plaintiffs’ Legal Committee in the Murphy oil spill litigation. He was appointed to Plaintiffs’ Legal Committee in the Education Testing Services litigation. In the Billieson lead paint class action, he was appointed as Class Counsel. Leger was also a member of F Lee Bailey’s Litigation Sub-Committee in the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India.
He currently serves as Co-Lead Counsel in the litigation surrounding the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans, involving injuries to hundreds of people and loss of business and property damage to numerous businesses near the site.
Leger represents numerous Louisiana local governments in the nationwide prescription opioid litigation. He is involved in coordinating nearly 200 local governments in Louisiana regarding settlement discussions and development of future litigation strategy.
He also serves as class counsel in class actions against the insurance industry following losses sustained because of Hurricane Ida in South Louisiana.
Leger has actively served the people of his community and Louisiana. He was appointed by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards to the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans and the Board of the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad.
He is a past Chairman of the Board of the New Orleans Regional Chamber of Commerce, Co-Chairman of the MetroVision Regional Economic Development Partnership and the St Bernard Chamber of Commerce. He is a member of the Louisiana Committee of 100 for Economic Development, the Southeast Louisiana Business Council Coalition, the New Orleans/Baton Rouge Super Region Committee, and the Board of Trustees of the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Louisiana Cancer Research Center. He was Chairman of the St Bernard Economic Development Foundation/Commission. He was a Founding Director of GNO Inc.
In addition to service as Vice-Chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Chair of the Louisiana Land Trust and Co-Chair of the St Bernard Citizen’s Recovery Committee, he has served on the Boards of the World Trade Center, the New Orleans Bar Association, the New Orleans Bar Foundation, the LSU Health Science Center Foundation, the Delgado Community College Foundation, Nunez Community College Foundation, Tulane Cancer Center, LSU Cancer Center, and the Louisiana Cancer Research Center.
Leger has actively served the people of his community and Louisiana.
After Hurricane Katrina, Leger was appointed by Governor Kathleen Blanco to the Louisiana Recovery Authority where, according to the Governor, he travelled “to our nation’s capital to help fight for resources necessary to help our people rebuild. Walter developed an expertise in answering complicated questions in ways people could appreciate and understand.…”
Governor Bobby Jindal re-appointed Leger and he served as Vice-Chairman. He was also appointed by both Governors to serve as Chairman of the Louisiana Land Trust and by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA).
Leger became well known as the co-host with Garland Robinette of a WWL radio show on hurricane recovery issues, prompting Robinette’s gratuitous comments quoted above.
Leger also testified before the US Senate Sub-Committee on Disaster Recovery, whose participants included Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and Senator Barack Obama. Leger appeared on behalf of the homeowners of Louisiana before five Congressional and Senate committees and sub-committees and met numerous times with Senate and House of Representatives staff and committee staffs, and with US Senators, Congressmen, and editorial and news staff of the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. He has also made appearances on ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, CNN, PBS, LPB and numerous local and national television and radio stations.
Today he is often consulted by members of the media for his expertise on maritime and complex litigation issues.
Leger is a former President and part-owner of the New Orleans Zephyrs Triple A Professional Baseball Team and the New Orleans Storm Professional Soccer team.
Awards and Recognitions
Leger was a finalist for the “National Lawyer of the Year” Award, has been named to Louisiana “SuperLawyers”, Citybusiness Newspaper’s “Leaders in Law Hall of Fame” and Best Lawyers in America (Admiralty and Maritime Law). He received the “President’s Awards” for leadership and public service from the New Orleans Bar Association, the Federal Bar Association, and the Louisiana Association of Justice. The Louisiana State Bar Association has given him its “Citizen Lawyer Award”. BIZ Magazine recently named him as one of 35 lawyers in the list of “New Orleans 500”.
Today he is often consulted by members of the media for his expertise on maritime and complex litigation issues.
He has been named “Volunteer of the Year” by both the Southern Economic Development Council and the Louisiana Industrial Development Executives Association. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society named him “Man of the Year”. A two-time cancer survivor, he was named one of the “Survivors of the Year” by the Cancer Crusaders.
He and his younger son, now Captain Rhett Leger (today a Mississippi River Bar Pilot), received commendations from the US Coast Guard for “Rescue and Life Saving” for venturing out into rough seas to rescue three people whose boat had sunk.
Walter J Leger, Jr
New Orleans Exchange, 935 Gravier Street, Suite 2150, New Orleans LA 70112
Tel: +1 504-588-9043