NEW ORLEANS – Of the $371 million in Deepwater Horizon settlements awarded to local governments last month, Louisiana law firms stand to rake in a hefty percentage of that in legal fees.
The influx of cash to local governments, part of a $687.4 million settlement oil giant BP made to state and local governments across the Gulf Coast due to the oil spill, means big paydays for a handful of politically connected Louisiana law firms.
One of the beneficiaries of the settlement is Houma-based Duval, Funderburk, Sundbery, Lovell & Watkins, whose lead partner, C. Berwick Duval, is the brother of a federal judge at the Eastern District of Louisiana. The law firm, which has represented Terrebonne Parish governments for years on a retainer basis, appears to have set a base contingency fee rate of 25 percent for the work they and other firms did on the Deepwater Horizon case. Records show the firm was part of handling at least 25 claims worth more than $30 million in settlement money for which they will split with other firms around $7.7 million in legal fees.
C. Berwick Duval said of the clients his firm represented the only one they served as sole legal counsel for was the Terrebonne Parish School Board.
"I didn’t represent the Terrebonne entities alone," Duval said. "There were three firms that represented most of the Terrebonne entities."
One of the law firms Duval split fees with was New Orleans-based Leger & Shaw whose named partner, Walter Leger, has held several gubernatorial appointments. In five settlements alone, Leger & Shaw, which specializes in mass tort litigation, received a combined $71.6 million from which they will net $15.8 million in legal fees. Altogether Leger & Shaw represents at least 40 government clients in the settlement, many of which have not released the details of their agreements with the firm.
Greg Gremillion, who is a former assistant district attorney for Jefferson Parish and is now a named partner for Gaudry, Ranson, Higgins & Gremillion, represented Jefferson Parish and Kenner in the Deepwater Horizon litigation. Gremillion appears to have taken the same tact as Leger & Shaw by pursuing some of the largest claims in the municipal settlement The Gretna-based law firm, which has represented the City of Kenner for years on a fee basis, will receive nearly $14 million in fees on a combined settlement amount of about $62 million.
The Thornhill Law Firm, a Slidell-based practice that employs 10 attorneys, will net about $7.2 million from government clients who received settlements worth just over a combined $37 million. The firm’s namesake, Tom Thornhill, is a former Louisiana House member.
The fees likely represent a windfall for the law firms involved, since the litigation never went to trial and the settlement was primarily hammered out between BP executives and court administrators. In total, litigation associated with the 2010 oil spill has netted billions of dollars in legal fees for law firms across the nation.
As government entities begin making payments under legal fee arrangements struck with law firms, some have questioned the wisdom of deploying private lawyers in a case most legal experts said was bound to settle without a trial.
For example, Gulf Shores, Ala. Mayor Robert Craft, whose Gulf Coast city received a $6.5 million settlement, said he did not see the need to hire outsiders.
"We negotiated ourself with no legal assist, so no fees,” Craft said in an email.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Stanwood R. Duval as "Stanwood R. Duval III" and said he is the son of a federal judge. Duval is actually the nephew of a federal judge. C. Berwick Duval, of Duval, Funderburk, Sundbery, Lovell & Watkins, has also said nearly all of the claims his firm handled were split with other firms, which was not taken into account in an earlier version of the article.