NEW ORLEANS — U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, has sided with the findings of a court-appointed fee committee and awarded $555.2 million to the 107 law firms handling the multi-district litigation (MDL) suit against BP for its role in the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.
The committee, whose creation both parties agreed to, found that the 527,000 collective hours spent by the plaintiff’s lawyers going over 7,407 exhibits, 2,739 hours of video and 130,642 pages of depositions from 65 experts, justified the awarded fee which came under a predetermined cap of $600 million.
Barbier’s 43-page decision described the case as one of the “most complicated multidistrict litigation cases ever brought to trial." He also noted that the fee was reasonable because “[t]he demands of this case not only precluded other employment, it required many common benefit attorneys to move to New Orleans and devote their entire practice to this MDL for years."
Not everyone agrees with this assessment, however. Melissa Landry of the Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch told the Louisiana Record that “class action lawsuits are notorious for producing outrageous fees for personal injury attorneys, but this $555.2 million award is especially offensive.”
“What’s worse is that similar scenarios have played out in a number of other high-profile class-action cases in Louisiana," she told the Louisiana Record.
Two cases in particular confirm Landry’s view that the Deepwater Horizon award is far from an aberration. A lawsuit filed by residents of East Jefferson and Lake Borgne Basin parishes against the local governments for their role in the failure of levees during Hurricane Katrina is one example. In that case, attorneys for the victims were paid $3.5 million for costs and expenses while doling out the claims was expected to consume another $2.4 million to $3.5 million of the $20 million damage award. This left $14 million for hundreds of thousands of claimants, resulting in payments of $1 to $463 as reported by the Times-Picayune in November 2014.
Another egregious case involved the infamous settling of the Agriculture Street suit. During the heyday of urban development in the 1960s and 1970s, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) constructed two communities built upon layers of toxic waste from an old landfill. Sickened residents filed a suit against HANO and the city of New Orleans in 2006, with the judge ruling in their favor. An award of just short of $35 million was announced and five insurers for HANO and the city were ordered to place $14.2 million in an account for victim payouts.
However, “half of the $14.2 million went to the five attorneys who represented the class” and to the “court's administrative expenses that include the appointment of special master Paul Valteau. That left just $7 million for the residents” reports the Times-Picayune. Victims were left with checks averaging several thousand dollars to cover the loss of their house or businesses.
“In the Agriculture Street landfill lawsuit and the Katrina levee breach lawsuit, politically connected plaintiffs' attorneys collected millions upon millions in legal fees, while the actual plaintiffs were left to share scraps. That’s similar to what’s happening here” with the BP ruling," Landry said.
A 2016 online survey conducted by the American College of Trial Lawyers found that respondents felt 51 percent of cases were frivolous, with 69 percent believing “lawyers get the bulk of the money and the alleged victims get minimal compensation.”
“These cases epitomize everything that's wrong with our civil justice system," Landry said. "Our courts should be used to make victims whole, not to make personal injury lawyers rich.”