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Gulf oil spill: Lawyers joust for clients

BPfishermengulf oil spilllawsuitsoffshore drillingoil spill

Turf battles have broken out among lawyers from Louisiana to Alabama who are vying to represent Gulf Coast fishermen who are out of work or want to help British Petroleum with cleanup efforts.The disputes intensified after New Orleans U.S. District Court Judge Ginger Barrigan, in an emergency hearing Sunday, ruled that BP cleanup contracts contained language that was over-broad.

Among the provisions on which she ruled was one that required volunteers to indemnify BP from any accidents or damage to the vessel during the recovery effort and to rely on their own insurance, with BP as an "additional insured" party.Another provision required them to refrain from making statements to the media without written approval from BP, while another demanded a 30-day written notice for vessel operators to pursue any claims against BP.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano asked BP to stop circulating the multipage agreements. The company has publicly acknowledged the agreements were “a mistake” and “a misstep.”

In an interview, BP spokesman Bill Salvin said the company had removed the contested language from the standard marine-vessel-charter contracts it had been using in the recovery effort.“We never intended for anyone to sign away their rights,” he said. “We only wanted to get people to help clean up the spill as quickly as possible.”

The ruling was hailed by the fishermen's legal team, the Gulf Oil Disaster Recovery Group, as a “first major victory” on behalf of those affected by the spill.That Louisiana legal team and others are attracting new clients throughout the Gulf Coast fishing industry. Mississippi and Alabama lawyers, meanwhile, are trying to sign up local fishermen before out-of-towners get the business.

On Tuesday, Gulf Oil Disaster Recovery Group attorney Rick Kuykendall announced in a statement, “While other lawyers are running around trying to get clients, we are getting results that matter for our clients.” In an interview, he was more blunt: “The cat’s out of the bag, and I can’t stomach it anymore -- every lawyer in the U.S. is descending on these poor people to get a case. Lawyers are begging to get cases from people even though they know they are already represented by me.”

Added Kuykendall: “One lawyer from Alabama told me yesterday, ‘This is a big ol' hog and I want to make sure I’m feeding on it.’ ”

But Mississippi State Sen. David Baria, who is a lawyer, argued, "The minute this oil-spill event happened, Louisiana lawyers started showing up to sign up our fishermen."Mississippi lawyers, he added sternly, "don't think it's right for Louisiana lawyers to be signing up their friends and neighbors, the very people they know better than anyone."

Expecting to learn more about the fine print in BP cleanup contracts, several hundred oyster and shrimp fishermen on Tuesday attended a hastily called meeting in a D’Iberville, Miss., VFW hall. The meeting was attended by Baria and nearly a dozen other Mississippi lawyers.

Many of the fishermen were distressed to learn that the lawyers were handing out applications for representation. “I never expected this many people,” Baria said. “These people are very anxious that they will lose their livelihood in exchange for going to work for BP in the recovery effort.” Among those in attendance was a lifelong shrimp and oyster fisherman, Anthony Pizzi, 52.  “We’re voicing our concerns about signing any contract with BP that would waive our rights.”

Many fishermen, however, took a look around the meeting and left within minutes, shaking their heads in anger. Baria acknowledged that “right now we see no evidence that fishermen are waiving their rights. It may be that the oil goes away, and if it does all these claims will go away too.”

[Update: The Natural Resource Defense Council has a primer on BP's liability, including the $75 million cap set by the Ocean Pollution Act for damage to property, business and livelihood, among other things.]

-- Louis Sahagun

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when exxon spilled 11million gal in alaska we had many meetings on how to proceed with contracts and dealing with lawyers flocking to our small town. my advice after 20 yrs is go to work aqnd make as much money as you can while you can. your fisheries may be damaged for years, hold onto your money,because it may be all you will make until you get your reg,bussnesses back. band together when it comes to lawyers.thats one mistake that i feel we did in pws alaska, we had too many differant law firms representing us along with other areas, its going to be confusing enough so shrimp fishermen should band together, just as charter operators should. i dont know how many fisheries you have but dont get too many lawfirms involved or you end up fighting amongst yourselves. good luck.concerned in alaska god bless

The devastation and amount of oil being spilled is hard to fathom. This website helped me to gain some perspective

The British Petroleum oil spill is slowly moving ashore and those of us who live near the Gulf wonder just how bad it’ll be.

The fishing industry is worried that marine life will die — and that no one will want to buy products from contaminated water. Tourism officials are worried that vacationers won’t visit oil-tainted beaches. And environmentalists are worried about how the oil will affect the countless birds, coral and mammals in and near the Gulf.

This spill could be worse than Valdez

The BP oil spill,which has tripled in size in about a day, could surpass the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound as the worst in U.S. history. BP and its partners are spending about $7 million a day on the problem. Meantime, the company has lost about $25 billion in stock market value.

“We are determined to fight this spill on all fronts, in the deep waters of the Gulf, in the shallow waters and, should it be necessary, on the shore,” said BP Group Chief Executive Tony Hayward.

Right now, the attention and focus should be on preventing an environmental disaster. But it’s frustrating to know that for all its wealth, BP didn’t have the systems in place to prevent such an accident and save the lives of 11 oil workers. The company certainly didn’t move fast enough to control the spill.

Oil spills, like other crises, are guaranteed to happen. There’s no time to think. You must have a realistic and regularly tested plan in place and act in real time. Seconds count. A minute can cost lives and tens of billions of dollars.

In the weeks ahead, this nation should do everything in its power to prevent a catastrophe. But soon, very soon, BP must be held accountable for its failures.


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