Legal Action Against Spill Spreads Across Gulf Coast

The major companies involved in the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are facing huge lawsuits. Last week, some 200 trial lawyers gathered in New Orleans to organize and plot strategy.

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While the executives are pointing fingers at each other on Capitol Hill, the lawyers are circling. Attorneys have already filed dozens of suits and they're busy collecting evidence and experts for many, many more. In fact, last week some 200 trial lawyers gathered in New Orleans to organize and plot strategy.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn has been speaking with some of them.

WADE GOODWYN: Think of the legal action spreading across the South like the oil spill itself. It begins in Louisiana but inexorably moves east as shrimpers, oystermen, sports fishermen, hotels, restaurants, condominium owners - indeed, the entire Gulf Coast economy - watches the oil wash up on shore and their summer wash out. And then, of course, there are the families of the workers killed and injured by the rig explosion.

It is not only an extraordinary spill. It is extraordinarily bad timing -ecologically, recreationally and commercially.

Daniel Becknell is one of Louisiana's leading chemical release and toxic tort lawyers. Becknell says to imagine a cash register and with each passing week you put two fingers on the keys, press down and increase the economic impact by $10 billion.

Mr. DANIEL BECKNELL (Attorney): I have estimated between 20 and 40 billion dollars if everything is stopped within the next two weeks.

GOODWYN: Nearly 100 lawsuits have already been filed. The next step in the legal action is in July, when a panel of seven federal judges will decide which judge is best equipped to hear what is likely to be the largest class action lawsuit in U.S. history. Becknell says the plaintiffs' lawyers have already engaged a broad range of experts to test the waters, photograph the shoreline and videotape the wildlife before oil comes ashore so as to have a baseline to compare to.

Mr. BECKNELL: We've retained over 40 experts who are world-class and don't just work for industry. They work mostly in academia.

GOODWYN: It took 20 years for the Exxon Valdez legal actions to completely play out. That is a dynamic the plaintiffs' lawyers insist is not going to happen again.

Richard Arsenault has filed suit on behalf of clients in Louisiana who have been hurt by the spill. He says he will fight any attempts by the defendants to stretch the legal proceedings out for years, if not decades.

Mr. RICHARD ARSENAULT (Attorney): If you had a lot of defendants that engage in this kind of litigation fatigue strategy, if that's your M.O., well, then delay is your friend. But certainly for the people that are entitled to compensation, delay is not their friend.

GOODWYN: In the first week after the spill, representatives from BP were offering affected parties between one and five thousand dollars immediately if they would sign an agreement not to sue the company. After complaints, that effort was stopped. BP CEO Tony Hayward called it, quote, "an early misstep."

Hayward has said publicly and repeatedly that BP is responsible for costs of the spill response. The litigation will bring into play a variety of different and sometimes conflicting federal and state laws. Arsenault says a spill of this size is uncharted legal territory.

Mr. ARSENAULT: You've got, you know, the general maritime law, you've got the Oil Pollution Act, you're going to have the Limitation of Liability Act in play, you're going to have the multidistrict litigations. And it's going to be interesting to see and challenging to see how the courts and the litigants move through this legal maze.

GOODWYN: And this week, BP got hit with a lawsuit from its own shareholders. Albert Myers is a partner at Kahn, Swick and Foti, a shareholder law firm.

Mr. ALBERT MYERS (Attorney): In the last couple of weeks, just since the accident occurred on April 20th, BP has lost over $37 billion in market value. Quite aside from all of the environmental damage, the damage to the company is affecting millions literally of shareholders across the country and across the world.

GOODWYN: Myers blames BP management for their decades-long focus on cutting costs at the expense of safety. They will ask the court to see that BP contractors, like Halliburton and Transocean, are also held liable to appoint shareholder representatives to BP's board of directors, and to told hold BP's top executives personally liable for damages payable back to the company itself.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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