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Gulf oil spill: Lawyers joust for clients

May 4, 2010 | 11:50 am

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