NEW ORLEANS — One of the side effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster is that a plethora of allegedly fraudulent claims have emerged that seem to be attempting to take advantage of the victim's compensation fund set up by British Petroleum to reimburse Gulf Coast businesses for their losses after the oil spill.
One of the more prominent cases features Nevada attorney Glen Lerner, whose New Orleans-based law firm Andry Lerner took on the case of Casey Thonn, a shrimp boat owner who attempted to defraud the settlement fund of $355,000.
Lerner represented Thonn in his attempt to raise a $1,750 claim to one of $357,000 through the filing of multiple falsified tax claims that misrepresented his earnings.
The attempted fraud landed Thonn with a prison sentence. Eastern District of Louisiana Federal Judge Carl Barbier ruled that Lerner violated the Louisiana rules of professional conduct and forbid Lerner and his firm from representing any clients related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a ruling which was later upheld by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In addition, special master Louis Freeh was appointed to investigate whether Lerner and law partner Jon Andrytried to influence claims by making secret payments to a claims center employee who referred the Thonn case to them. Upon the conclusion of Freeh's report Andry Lerner was accused of violating Rules of Professional Conduct and lying to the court.
This is not the only transgression Andry Lerner has been involved in related to the Deepwater Horizon fund. In 2015, Andry Lerner were involved in a similar case in which Plaquemines Parish shrimp boat captain Tony Riley filed false tax forms that claimed shrimp sales that never actually occurred. The firm was then subjected to a $221,000 clawback request as a result of that case.
These instances are unfortunately all too common overall, according to Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch.
“In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon accident, the settlement fund was established with the goal of fairly compensating victims," Landry told the Louisiana Record. "In the intervening years, however, a cadre of personal injury trial lawyers, administrators and fraudsters have abused this system for their own personal gain, tarnishing our legal system and further hurting deserving victims. Las Vegas-based billboard lawyer Glen Lerner is among the many trial lawyers who flocked to Louisiana after the Deepwater Horizon accident looking to profit from the disaster. Lerner is just the tip of the iceberg. Local and national law enforcement officials have uncovered millions in fraudulent claims, and it is estimated more than 250 fraud cases have lead to criminal charges and convictions."
Lerner now faces possible disbarment from the State Bar of Nevada for the handling of the alleged Thonn fraud case. There's also a chance Lerner could face criminal charges in the matter.
“I hope the Nevada State Bar will take a close look at the facts and come to the right decision," Landry said. "Cracking down on lawyers who seem to perpetrate fraud in our courts is necessary to preserve and strengthen public faith in our legal system. Lawyers are not above the law. If a court finds Lerner guilty of criminal behavior, he should face the same penalties as anyone else.”
Landry said she would like to see more aggressive action taken by the state in all of these types of cases in the hopes it would dissuade other potential fraudsters from taking a similar route.
“Ambulance chasing has been a part of the legal profession for a long time, but the extraordinary amount of fraud and corruption that has marred the Deepwater settlement suggests a new low for the plaintiffs’ bar altogether," Landry said. "While it is certainly encouraging that the Nevada State Bar is moving forward with formal ethics charges, it begs the question why haven’t we seen any action taken against Lerner in Louisiana? Why hasn’t the Louisiana State Bar Association or the Louisiana attorney disciplinary board taken any action to sanction or at least investigate Lerner? Some lawyers in Louisiana seem to get away with a lot of dodgy behavior. From their questionable advertising tactics to the relentless filing of meritless lawsuits that waste tax dollars, to taking one-third or more of their clients’ awards. But when a lawyer behaves unethically, the administration of justice is compromised and people are harmed. To allow this to continue without penalty or punishment seems absurd.”