MIAMI — Teams of lawyers from around the nation are mobilizing for a gargantuan legal battle over the massive Gulf Coast oil spill, filing multiple lawsuits in recent days that together could dwarf the half-billion dollars awarded in the Exxon Valdez disaster two decades ago.
If the oil slick fouls popular beaches, ruins fisheries and disrupts traffic on the Mississippi River, attorneys say there could be hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs from Texas to Florida seeking monetary damages from oil producer BP PLC and other companies that ran the Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
At least 26 federal lawsuits have been filed since the spill by commercial fishermen, charter boat captains, resort management companies and individual property owners in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. Many of the suits claim the disaster was caused when workers for oil services contractor Halliburton Inc. improperly capped a well — a process known as cementing. Halliburton denied that. Investigators are still looking into the cause.
Capt. Mike "Sandbar" Salley, who runs Sure Shot Charters out of Orange Beach, Ala., is one of many fishermen watching helplessly as customers cancel fishing excursions at the start of a busy summer season, in which he makes 80 percent of his income. Salley, 51, is a plaintiff in one of the potential class-action lawsuits seeking to recover damages from the operators of the sunken oil rig.
"It's somebody's fault and somebody needs to answer for it," said Salley, who added that his phone and those of other boat captains have been ringing nonstop with lawyers seeking oil-spill clients. "This is going to shut down the entire coast."
Toxic residues remain to this day after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, studies have shown. Thousands of fishermen, cannery workers, landowners and Native Americans were initially awarded $5 billion in punitive damages. That was reduced on appeal to $2.5 billion and then, in 2008, cut down to $507.5 million by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even though the Supreme Court reduced the size of damages, attorneys said the Gulf Coast cases have the potential to be much bigger considering the large coastal population and diverse economy that includes tourism, fishing and shipping industries.
Most of the lawsuits filed so far are potential class-action cases, meaning the plaintiffs seek to represent an entire group of people in similar situations who claim to have suffered economic losses due to company negligence.
Louisiana attorney Daniel Becnel is leading one group of lawyers suing BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd. and companies that had roles in rig operations, such as Cameron International, which produced the rig's blowout preventers.
Becnel said such legal teams are common in large, complex cases because each lawyer brings their own specialties. They also set up committees to screen potential clients and identify the strongest cases.
"I want the best brief writers. I want the best deposition takers. I want the best lawyers who can work with experts," said Becnel, who has also been involved in recent Toyota recall and Chinese drywall lawsuits.
Typically when numerous federal lawsuits make similar allegations in different courts, they are consolidated before a single judge who makes key pretrial decisions, such as whether to certify lawsuits as a class action and whether to allow the case to continue to trial.
The companies named as defendants declined comment on the lawsuits, although Transocean did issue a statement saying its "focus remains on meeting the needs of family members during this difficult time" as well as supporting BP in cleanup efforts. Halliburton said in a statement that it was cooperating with the investigation, adding that it was "premature and irresponsible to speculate" on the possible cause of the explosion.
The cases could also impact Lloyd's of London, Transocean's major insurer.
Family members of the 11 men missing and feared dead are also beginning to file lawsuits, which are governed by a special maritime law known as the Death on the High Seas Act.
Natalie Roshto of Amite County, Miss., wife of missing rig worker Shane Roshto, claimed in her lawsuit filed in Louisiana federal court on April 21 that she is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Initially, her lawsuit seeks payment of $40 a day since the explosion under what are called "maintenance and cure" benefits provide by those laws.
Troy Wetzel, a 45-year-old charter captain in Venice, La., is among those filing a potential class-action case. He ticked off a list of hardships that began with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, continued with Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and is now capped by the oil spill.
Wetzel said his lawsuit isn't aimed at driving the oil industry out of the Gulf Coast.
"We do want oil wells. We love them. It's a giant reef," he said, referring to how fish congregate around rigs. "All we want is for them to clean up their problem before they start drilling any more, and take care of us. If you're going to ruin our environment, you've got to take care of us."
Watkins reported from Los Angeles.