NEW ORLEANS – A group made up largely of Vietnamese-American fisherman has filed a class action lawsuit against a Texas attorney who they claim improperly named them as clients in settlement claims related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The lawsuit was filed against Mikal Watts, of San Antonio–based Watts Guera LLP, on Jan. 7 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana by a number of Vietnamese fishermen who were included on a list of nearly 43,000 claimants Watts alleged he represented in claims related to a $2.3 billion seafood fund BP set up in the wake of the 2010 oil spill.
In the lawsuit, Watts, along with law partners Hunter Craft and Francisco Guerra, is alleged to have erroneously filed claims paperwork on behalf of at least 19 individuals and businesses, mostly Vietnamese-American commercial fishermen working in the water of Southeast Louisiana.
The lawsuit accuses Watts of believing he would be able to force the plaintiffs to accept him as their legal representative because they are part of a minority group.
“Mr. Watts and (Watts Guera LLP) committed these blatant wrongs against Plaintiffs, and the members of the putative class, under the arrogant presumption that this minority group of Vietnamese fishermen would be scared of Defendants power and influence and thus would bow their heads,” the filing reads.
The plaintiffs argue they never signed an agreement to have Watts represent them, but all received letters addressing them as clients.
“[T]he Vietnamese class members, who did not sign a written contingency fee agreement and a written consent to refer agreement authorizing Mr. Watts and WG to file suit or submit claims on their behalf,” the filing reads.
The plaintiffs accuse Watts of misappropriation of identity, negligent misrepresentation, violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act and breach of fiduciary duty.
The lawsuit comes only weeks after Watts was sued by BP which claims to have found evidence that he falsified social security numbers for a portion of the claimants he claimed to represent in settlements, some of which were also found to be deceased.
In that lawsuit BP said Watts’ claimants make up 76 percent of all claims against the BP seafood fund. Of the claimants Watts claims to represent only 648 pursued claims through Watts Guera and of those only eight have been found eligible to receive claims.
The lawsuit filed by the Vietnamese fishermen references the BP lawsuit against Watts and claims that due to his actions and the ensuing lawsuits any claims the fishermen may be eligible for will now be delayed.
“[T]he BP lawsuit will greatly delay the rightful payments to the fishermen who are entitled to these payments. In fact, the BP lawsuit against Mr. Watts is extremely devastating to many fishermen. Many fishermen have been on the verge of bankruptcy,” the filing reads.
According to the filing, Watts is currently the focus of an investigation by the Department of Justice.
In March, his law offices were raided by the U.S. Secret Service, who were searching for records related to BP clients.
Watts was accused of discrepancies on the list of clients he submitted to get on the steering committee. Some Vietnamese people claimed they never hired Watts or any lawyer, but found out that claims had been filed on their behalf while others said they believed they were signing up for medical or financial assistance but were actually hiring an attorney.
Shortly after the investigation began, Watts stepped down from the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee.
No indictments or criminal charges have been filed.
Watts first gained national attention for product liability litigation against Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Co. In 2005, he obtained a $31 million verdict against Ford for a rollover death.
He was also involved in suits against Merck & Co. pharmaceuticals over the drug Vioxx and one report has estimated Watts has obtained settlements worth more than $2 billion.
Watts is known as a major donor to Democratic candidates. In 2012, he hosted a private $35,800-a-plate fundraiser for President Barack Obama at his home in The Dominion. The 75 guests included Mayor Julian Castro, U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, former mayor and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros and actress Eva Longoria, the Express-News reported.
In 2008, Watts briefly made an attempt to run against John Cornyn for U.S. Senate, but pulled out of the race reportedly to spend more time with his family.
Case no. 2:14-cv-00039.