Appeals court breaks up class-action suit versus Iberia Sheriff’s Office

by Walter Pierce

In a mixed ruling likely to satisfy few, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal has affirmed class-action status for a group of plaintiffs who filed suit against former Iberia Parish Sheriff Sid Hebert and his department following an ugly incident during the 2006 Sugar Cane Festival in New Iberia. But, the appeals court tossed out many of the members of the class who did not meet rigid criteria for inclusion. The case now heads back to the 16th Judicial District for further action.

The suit, Cheryl Hill et al Versus Sheriff Sid Hebert et al, was filed in the months following a fracas on Hopkins street when Iberia Parish deputies used tear gas to disperse a crowd following the evening’s festivities. The situation, according to court records, escalated into violence when some in the crowd began throwing rocks and bottles at the deputies, forcing the deputies to retreat and fire more tear gas.

Hill, the lead plaintiff, left the scene immediately, but not before being subject to the physical effects of the tear gas and allegedly being struck in the shoulder by a tear gas canister — the basis upon which she and others in the class-action filed suit.

The class status was affirmed by District Judge Charles Porter. Hebert and his fellow defendants challenged that class status to the 3rd Circuit, which affirmed Porter’s ruling but also severely narrowed the number of plaintiffs in the class based on when they left the scene: immediately, like Hill; those who remained after law enforcement used a nearby public-address system to tell the estimated 450 people clogging the street that it was time to leave; and those who remained even after the third dispersal of tear gas, at which time some in the crowd had begun throwing rocks and bottles at the deputies.

The 3rd Circuit left it up to the district court to determine how small that class of plaintiffs will be:

The proposed class members simply do not have claims in common such that a class certification is warranted based on the current definition of the calss. However, La. Code Cov. P. art. 592 (A)(d) clearly authorizes the trial court to “alter, amend, or recall its initial ruling certification and may enlarge, restrict, or otherwise redefine the constituency of the class.” We can affirm the certification of the class despite its substandard definition because the trial court can remedy this error on remand. Thus, we affirm the trial court’s class action certification, but remand to the trial court to redefine the class based on evidence that was put forth at the certification hearing.

A similar suit alleging civil rights violations by the deputies was filed and later thrown out in federal court in Lafayette.

The Daily Iberian reported on that federal ruling and provided a good recounting of the 2006 incident:

The 25-page lawsuit suggests the deputies’ decision to deploy tear gas was racially motivated. [The lead attorney for the plaintiffs] points out that his 76 plaintiffs are “predominately” black and that “there was a similar celebration going on among celebrants who are predominately caucasian in another section of New Iberia.”


The lawsuit sprang from a tussle between hundreds of revelers and about a dozen sheriff’s deputies in the waning hours of the 2006 Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival and Fair. After the festival had ended, the revelers continued celebrating and listening to music in the street at the intersection of Hopkins and Robertson streets.

But the masses clogged up the intersection and complicated traffic, making it impossible to pass at some points. The Sheriff’s Office received several complaints from motorists who said they were stuck in traffic and intimidated by the crowd.

The crowd had not been issued a permit to block off the street, and Hebert said at the time the State Police also complained because the road in question is a state highway — Louisiana 675. Officials said they grew concerned ambulances and other emergency vehicles would have difficulty passing through.

At around 8 p.m., sheriff’s deputies said they used a public address to order the crowd out of the street. When the revelers seemed unfazed, the deputies resorted to using tear gas; one canister soon turned into several.

In court papers, [the plaintiffs’ attorney] argued the use of tear gas violated the plaintiffs’ rights, in part because so many unsuspecting women and children were affected.

The plaintiffs also maintained they did not hear the warnings to get out of the street.

The incident was a flash point in long-simmering tensions between New Iberia’s black community and local law enforcement — tension punctuated shortly after the incident when representatives of the New Black Panther Party descended on New Iberia and threatened retaliation should deputies employ tear gas in the future.

Read the entire ruling here.

And for more on the Iberia Sheriff’s Office and its rocky relationship with black residents, read Ind Staff Writer Patrick Flanagan’s Oct. 2, 2013 story, “A not-so-sweet tradition: Iberia Sheriff versus black people.”