NEW ORLEANS – A group of about 100 attorneys and accountants frustrated by the slow claims process in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill case met in a downtown New Orleans hotel Monday to discuss how to jumpstart what appears to have become a hopelessly stalled process.
The meeting was coordinated by Brent Coon & Associates (BCA), a Beaumont, Texas law firm that represents 5,000 claimants. It was attended mainly by representatives of law firms who are not members of the Plaintiff’s Steering Committee (PSC) – the group of lawyers who brokered the massive settlement that arose from the BP oil spill in 2010.
Some plaintiff attorneys say the settlement, beset by allegations of fraud and mismanagement, has become unworkable for those claimants who are not represented by PSC lawyers. The PSC firms, which stand to split a collective $660 million fee for overseeing the settlement, have been accused by some non-PSC lawyers of manipulating the claims process for their own benefit.
While Coon and the others gathered at the meeting were vocal critics of BP for doing its own part to stall the claims process, rifts are appearing within the trial attorneys ranks. Several attorneys on hand for the meeting complained that the PSC firms – which are sworn to represent the rights of all claimants – have disregarded their complaints that the settlement process is at a virtual standstill.
“Our steering committee has not done a very effective job communicating those concerns, either back to the court or back to the claimants,’’ Coon said. “[Our claimants] have no reasonable expectation of getting paid anytime soon; it may be years.’’
Indeed, more than four years after the oil spill and two years after a settlement was struck, around 131,000 claimants still haven’t been paid, according to figures recently filed by Patrick Juneau, the court-appointed claims administrator in the case. Juneau’s figures suggest that at the current rate of settlement, it will take more than 12 years to process all remaining claims. Non-PSC attorneys say those who brokered the settlement promised swift payments and a transparent process.
The deadlock in settling claims has all parties assessing blame on others involved. BP primarily blames Juneau, who it says has been proven to be an inept administrator who should be removed from his position. In addition, in a recent memo obtained by The American Zombie, the PSC blamed former FBI Director Louis Freeh who is conducting a far-reaching fraud investigation in the case.
Coon, who opposed the settlement from the beginning, has been generally critical of the entire process. In a case filing last week, Coon said Juneau has essentially shut the door on what he has repeatedly promised would be a transparent process. Coon suggested that Juneau and his staff have relinquished their responsibilities by allowing Freeh and others to rewrite the claims rules and embark on secret investigations that seem to have no point or no end.
“[T]hese investigations are so secretive that approximately 50 BCA clients are currently under investigation, some for more than a year and half and not a single one has been told why,’’ Coon said in his filing. “[T]he Court needs to step in and say, ‘enough is enough’ and wind down the [investigations].’’
Coon complained that Freeh and his subcontractors are “running private enterprise operations with no budget, no mandate, no deadline, no bid, and no hurry, all at the expense of the review process.’’
In statements made at Monday’s meeting Coon was careful not to directly criticize the PSC lawyers. However, he vowed to hold more events with non-PSC lawyers.
“We are not here to disrupt the processes that are in place,’’ Coon said, “we are out here to find ways to make those processes much better.”