Lawyers Rush to Gulf Coast

Lawyers from around the country set their sights on the Gulf of Mexico as the massive oil spill cleanup continues. They’re filing lawsuits seeking damages that officials say could easily surpass the hundreds of millions awarded in the Exxon Valdez disaster. Pat Hernandez has more.

The four players named BP, Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron International are defendants in the rising number of lawsuits, from wrongful death and personal injury, to claims brought by businesses and individuals who’s livelihoods were disrupted. Thom Bilek is a Houston attorney who represents some of the fishermen in suits filed in New Orleans.

“They’re talking about the shrimp and the oysters that you’re harvesting, could be decimated for years. So, this is an especially damaging situation for them. To put it in context, the fishermen devastated by Katrina, by the damage and they got their boats fixed, and they’re just getting back on their feet, and then this happens.”

He says BP’s initial offer of 25-million dollars to states affected by the accident will help as they prepare for the oil’s eventual arrival to shore.

“BP coming forward and offering to pay people, that’s always good. Now the question is, are they offering fair settlements? I mean, one of the things that they were doing early on was trying to get people to release their claims for between one thousand and five thousand dollars, which is ridiculous for the damages that these people are suffering.”

Even though the Supreme Court reduced the size of damages after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, attorneys say the Gulf Coast cases have the potential to be much bigger, considering the large coastal population and diverse economy. 

Professor Gerald Treece is with the South Texas College of law. He says wrongful death and personal injury cases will be the first lawsuits to be heard, followed by claims of trespass and nuisance, environmental and economic losses .

“And BP’s liable for all of it and, even if they’re limited over their actual damages, there’s a superfund that was created after the Exxon Valdez disaster, to where this fund is to be used for these purposes. So, there’s plenty of money, BP’s responsible, BP’s people are responsible, and we’re just seeing Act 1 of a multi-act play concerning different types of plaintiffs and different types of cases.”  

Attorney Thom Bilek says he’s telling his clients that settlement probably won’t happen right away.

“I do anticipate more people coming to us, but these fishermen, alot of them, have been fishing since the 1800s, their family have continuously, so they’re worried about their children, whether they’re going to be able to continue on and be fishermen. I mean, this does affect the whole family.”