Former Exxon-Valdez plaintiff lawyer sees GCCF as alternative to prolonged litigation

Alejandro de los Rios Jun. 2, 2011, 8:36am


A Minneapolis attorney who served as a lead trial lawyer in the Exxon-Valdez oil spill litigation said he's looking to avoid prolonged litigation for his clients affected by the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Gerry Nolting, a partner at Faegre & Benson in Minnesota, opened an office in Biloxi, Miss. in January at the request of the Mississippi Coalition for Vietnamese Fisherfolks and Family to help them with their oil spill claims.

Nolting said he sees the $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Facility as a way to avoid lengthy litigation that fisherman can't afford to wait out.

"In terms of going for litigation and 'damn the torpedoes,' it's a long process," he said. "Most of my clients in the seafood industry can't wait to be compensated."

Nolting called the Exxon-Valdez litigation "long and tortuous" and, when it was finally resolved, many felt unsatisfied with the meager payout that came 20 years after the spill.

"In the Exxon case, one-third of our clients died before the ruling," Nolting said.

In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that Exxon-Valdez would have to pay $500 million in punitive damages for the 1989 spill.

Nolting praised U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in his "creative" handling of the complex multidistrict litigation (MDL) surrounding BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

"In massive tort litigation, you need to have a number of alternatives," Nolting said. "If you want to be involved with litigation you have to be willing to go toe-to-toe for five, ten years or longer."

Nolting's said his client base in the Gulf Coast consists mostly of Vietnamese fishermen from Mississippi who have seen their industry hit hard since the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded. He said they aren't in a position to wait for the litigation to end.

Jennifer Vu has worked with the Vienamese Fisherfolks coalition for six years and said that, more than a year since the spill, fishermen are still struggling to get back on their feet economically.

"They have to prepare for the season, make repairs and maintenance upgrades to their boats," she said. "All those things cost a lot of money. They may not have enough to go shrimping this year."

An estimated 20,000 Vietnamese make up a community of fishermen and shrimpers along the Gulf Coast and all have been affected by the oil spill.

Vu said that her organization came into contact with Nolting when he came down to a conference in Mississippi to speak about his experience with the Exxon-Valdez

The Vietnamese coalition reached out to Nolting because they were becoming frustrated with the complex litigation and claims process, Vu said.

"The whole claims process is difficult," Vu said. "For Vietnamese fisherman, this is their livelihood, this isn't just a job. Some of my clients had to wait an extremely long time before they saw a claim."

Even though fishermen are frustrated with the GCCF, Nolting said that "it's premature for me to be prejudging" the claims process.

Nolting is reserving judgment even as several plaintiff attorneys and state attorneys general have criticized the GCCF and its administrator, Kenneth Feinberg, for allegedly unjustly denying claims or paying too little.

On the flip side, BP has argued in court proceedings that the GCCF has paid too much money and its damage estimates are too high.

Feinberg and his attorneys have maintained that the GCCF is performing its duties to the full extent of its capability.

Nolting sees tensions between the MDL and the GCCF as a byproduct of attorneys fighting for clients.

"The MDL is competing for claimants and wants them involved in the litigation," Nolting said. "That fact is that no one forces anyone into the claims process. I know for a fact that litigation with an oil company is a long, risky, expensive affair."

Though their stories have mostly flown under the radar in the media, the MDL quickly addressed the issue of foreign workers in one of the first status conferences, where plaintiff and defense counsel agreed to translate case proceedings into Vietnamese, Cantonese and Spanish.

BP has also reached out the Vietnamese fishermen, holding town hall meetings across the Gulf Coast in the months since the spill.

Nolting said that opening an office in Biloxi was necessary to ensure that his clients were getting the best representation in the claims process. He said "the cost is worth it" in order to help a community he sees as "historically underrepresented."

"You can come down here and make some money if you know what you're doing and we know what we're doing," he said.

In the end, though, Nolting said the only way to judge the GCCF depends on whether it fairly compensates claimants for the "extraordinary risk" they take on by waiving their right to sue in pursuit of a final claim.

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