NEW ORLEANS – Plaintiff lawyers leading litigation over the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill have found a short cut to their goal of pursuing class actions.
A notice that the plaintiff steering committee proposes to publish, apparently concerning rig owner Transocean, encourages readers to sue oil company BP and others.
The steering committee wants U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to approve the notice, but defendants have objected.
For BP, Don Haycraft of New Orleans wrote that the committee's purpose wasn't to advertise a deadline for claims against Transocean but to gain claimants.
"The plaintiff steering committee is free to advertise for clients on its own within the relevant legal and ethical guidelines," he wrote.
Transocean lawyer Steven Roberts of Houston wrote that there was no need for any notice because the company already published a clear and simple one.
Plaintiff lawyers who don't belong to the steering committee also objected.
"The notice is unclear, misleading and lacks full disclosure of the elements of the attorney client relationship," wrote Peter Cambs of Bonita Springs, Fla.
Anthony Buzbee of Houston wrote that only the steering committee would benefit from the notice, to the exclusion of other attorneys.
Danny Becnel of Reserve wrote, "Much of the work being done by the plaintiff steering committee is unnecessary and involves efforts to garner fees rather than develop facts."
Transocean holds a unique position in the litigation because a 160 year old federal law limits the liability of a vessel's owner to the value of the vessel.
Plaintiffs, states and local governments challenge the limit, claiming the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 repealed the old law.
Barbier, responsible for hundreds of suits from many federal courts, can't proceed on claims against other defendants until he determines Transocean's liability.
He set trial strictly on the limitation question for next February.
He set an April 20 deadline for claims against Transocean.
The steering committee called for publication of notice ahead of the deadline.
Their version carries a headline announcing, "To protect your right to recover money and other damages against Transocean."
It says, "Filing this claim form will also join you in the master lawsuit that has been filed against BP and the other defendants.
"You can participate in the federal lawsuit even if you already filed a claim with BP's Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
"Filing the claim form will not prevent you from recovering money through BP's Gulf Coast Claims Facility."
It provides a telephone number and recommends contacting a lawyer for advice.
The notice widened a gap between a steering committee that seeks to control the claims facility and individual lawyers who find its performance satisfactory.
Cambs wrote, "Anyone filing a claim against Transocean would, in effect, make the plaintiff steering committee his or her counsel, for both the limitation and as to all other defendants in the master lawsuit."
He wrote that it would result in unwarranted fees and reduce the net recovery available to claimants.
Becnel wrote that there is no necessity for a master complaint, and he endorsed the management of claims facility administrator Kenneth Feinberg.
"The history of this case has been one of constant attempts and maneuvers to unnecessarily extend and protract this litigation and undermine the work of Mr. Feinberg and the Gulf Coast Claims Facility," Becnel wrote.
He wrote that the notice doesn't disclose that one who files a claim in the limitation proceeding actually does more than that.
He had checked a website that the notice advertised, but he found it blank.
"What is the court approving and sanctioning by approval of this notice directing potential claimants to an empty website?" he wrote.