NEW ORLEANS – The 18-attorney committee representing the biggest class action lawsuit in history has been pursuing legal action in their own best interests rather than that of their clients, according to plaintiff attorney Daniel Becnel.
The Plaintiffs Steering Committee (PSC) is a group of attorneys who have engineered the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement with BP. The courts vested the PSC with the power to provide legal representation for all of those who claim they may have been harmed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That number currently stands at over half a million. For their services, the PSC stands to make more than $1 billion - with $660 million off the top, 6 percent of each claim paid, as well as additional payments they will receive from their own claimants.
However, the PSC has been heavily criticized by attorneys outside their ranks.
Becnel is one of the more outspoken ones. For the past 45 years the LaPlace attorney has sat on numerous steering committees for other class action lawsuits. Despite being the first attorney to file the multidistrict litigation that resulted in the Deepwater Horizon class action settlement, as well as representing hundreds of individual claimants, Becnel’s application to be included in the PSC was denied by the court. Since the PSC has taken over the case, Becnel has called it a “feeding frenzy.
Becnel says that while the PSC has an obligation to protect and advance the interests of the entire class action group, the PSC has shown an extraordinary amount of self-interest and a lack of care for others involved in the case.
Developments over the past few years would seem to back up Becnel’s claims. For example, the PSC was originally comprised of 19 attorneys, but Mikal Watts, a San Antonio-based lawyer with the firm Guera Watts LLP, resigned from the committee after coming under investigation by the Secret Service. Watts is accused of fraud concerning some 43,000 claimants whose damages were worth more than $1 billion. Many were found to be “phantom” claimants with false social security numbers who likely do not exist and a handful who were found to be deceased.
Becnel has also called into question the ethics of the legal actions of the PSC as well as the makeup of the PSC of whom he says some members are located as far away from the Gulf Coast as San Francisco and that many of them do not have court experience or experience in large scale environmental disasters. Becnel has indicated that the PSC makeup is more of a political game in which connected attorneys help out their friends by supporting their PSC appointments in various nationwide litigation and that it is not a coincidence that many PSC members are past-president s the Louisiana Association for Justice, the state’s most prominent trial lawyer advocacy group, of which U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing the case, is also a past-president.
In addition, Becnel claims that the PSC was also at an advantage over other attorneys because they engineered the settlement and were thus better prepared to hustle up claimants immediately after the settlement was announced.
Becnel is not alone in his criticism of the PSC. Last fall a group of around 100 attorneys and accountants were convened at the Sheraton New Orleans by Brent Coon, a Beaumont, Texas-based plaintiff's attorney who has spent most of his career specializing in asbestos cases, but has successfully sued BP before over the explosion of the Texas City refinery in 2005.
“[The PSC] 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.’’
(Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment of a series of articles and accompanying videos with attorney Daniel Becnel, who filed the original multi-district litigation against BP over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. To see the first installment CLICK HERE; to see the second installment CLICK HERE.)