Lawyers lining up for class-action suits over oil spill

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2010

On April 21, with the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig still in flames, John W. Degravelles and a group of other lawyers sued for damages. In the first of at least 88 suits filed since the disaster, they were seeking compensation for the widow of a Transocean worker who went missing and is presumed dead.

It marked the beginning of legal action that is spreading as inexorably as the oil that threatens the wildlife and economy of five states along the Gulf of Mexico.

"On Thursday, I could smell the oil and, being a toxic tort lawyer, I realized that the fact that you're smelling something means that you're inhaling something," Stuart Smith, a New Orleans lawyer, said this month when breezes were carrying the scent of the oil slick toward the city. Smith, who has sued major oil companies before, immediately contacted toxicologists and air monitors to start doing tests that could be used as evidence.

The law firms now assembling are members of the all-star team of plaintiffs' attorneys. They have experience suing big companies over asbestos, tobacco, oil company waste, breast implants and Chinese drywall. They have represented Ecuadoran shrimp farmers and New York lobstermen, patients who have swallowed Vioxx and investors who lost money on shares of Enron. And their ranks include the likes of Erin Brockovich, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and former partners of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.

"When we put together the team for tobacco . . . it was the A-team of lawyers, and this is the same thing developing here," said Mike Papantonio, who cut his teeth on asbestos litigation and is a partner in Florida-based Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Echsner & Proctor. The firm says it has won $2.5 billion in jury verdicts, including a dozen of more than $10 million each.

The prospects of getting big dollars in this case are good, too, lawyers say. They are eyeing BP, one of the five biggest publicly owned companies in the world; Transocean, the largest offshore driller in the world; Halliburton, the big oil services firm; and Cameron, maker of the well's failed blowout preventer. Anadarko Petroleum and Mitsui, BP's partners in the offshore lease, also are liable.

Unlike the Exxon Valdez tanker accident, which happened in Alaska's remote Prince William Sound, the current spill could have a much bigger economic impact because the Gulf of Mexico is a busy home to valuable fisheries, tourism and shipping.

Vast potential

Smith, suing on behalf of fishermen, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and four large hotels, alleges that BP and others were "grossly negligent" in allowing the blowout to occur. Damage includes removal costs, property damage and the loss of income and profits for people and businesses. Because the spill has been lingering offshore, the plaintiffs who can claim damages so far are mostly out-of-work fishermen and tourist resorts that are getting cancellations.

As rich as BP is, "if this well keeps leaking for three or four months, it's Katie bar the door," Smith said. "I don't think they have enough money." He said fishing beds might need one or two generations to recover.

Some lawyers say the case also offers a chance to take on the oil industry's political ties. Papantonio wants to depose the person who ran the Minerals Management Service under President George W. Bush to find out why the agency did not require certain types of safety devices.

"I want to talk about the mindset of this company, because that becomes probative for a company that was so reckless that it becomes manslaughter, and that affects whether there should be punitive damages," Papantonio said.

The first legal battle will be over the location of the trial. A panel will consolidate all the suits in one court for efficiency and to avoid discrepancies in rulings. The plaintiffs' attorneys will choose an executive committee. This approach has been used in 30 to 40 large class-action suits.

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