AUSTIN, Texas - Litigation arising out of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will undoubtedly provide trial lawyers with countless cases and stacks of money in attorney fees.
In addition to the 11 deaths that occurred on April 20, when an oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded off the Louisiana coast, claims related to the spill are expected to gush into Gulf State courthouses from individuals and businesses that say they've suffered a loss at the hands of the multinational energy giant.
Since the accident, daily about 210,000 gallons of oil have been flooding into Gulf waters. Already, lawsuits and class actions have been filed against London-based BP over the spill.
Undoubtedly great news to the nation's plaintiffs' bar, BP's general counsel on Friday sent a letter to the five state attorneys general along the Gulf Coast, assuring them that his company will pay claims quickly and not require claimants to sign release of liability forms to receive payments.
One of the nation's leading trial lawyers, Mark Lanier, said his Houston, Texas, firm already has more than 100 cases related to the spill.
"We've had two lawyers working around the clock trying to scrub them to see which ones we want, which we don't," Lanier told Texas Lawyer magazine.
He added that the Deepwater Horizon spill is much larger than the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989, which until recently was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters. The accident dumped an estimated 10.8 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound.
By comparison, an estimated 3 million gallons have leaked a day from the Deepwater Horizon site. That amounts to about 48 million gallons.
"This makes the Valdez look like an oil leak in a car," Lanier was quoted as saying. "Honestly, this is a monstrosity; it's a tragedy. ... There are huge legal problems that need resolution."
Another well-known Texas trial lawyer, Brent Coon of Beaumont, told the magazine that his law office has been contacted by about two dozen other firms seeking help with lawsuits and class actions they've filed over the spill.
"We've been talked to by several dozen lawyers in several different states," said Coon, who gained national prominence in representing plaintiffs suing over the 2005 explosion of the BP refinery in Texas City that killed 15 people. The case settled in 2007 for an undisclosed amount plus $32 million in charitable contributions.
Coon said he took valuable lessons away from that case, including to take steps to prevent defendant companies from destroying documents or physical evidence.
Hoping to ease litigation, Louisiana attorney Daniel Becnel Jr. has filed a motion with the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation in Washington to combine oil spill cases in an MDL court.
While having an MDL court could save in plaintiffs' discovery, the time before cases are settled could be lengthened, Coon said. His assessment on MDL courts: "Sometimes they work well; sometimes they work OK; and sometimes they work terribly."
For lawyers wanting to file cases over the BP spill, the lead plaintiffs' counsel in the Exxon Valdez case, Brian O'Neill, had strong warnings.
"If I were a lawyer getting involved in these cases, I would make sure I have the financial and emotional resources to wage this war," O'Neill, of Minneapolis, told Texas Lawyer.
He said the plaintiffs' lawyers involved in the consolidated Valdez cases invested $200 million worth of time and about $40 million.