By Brendan Kirby, Mobile Press Register
(December 8, 2010) – Lawsuits filed against BP PLC and its business partners by Alabama Attorney General Troy King are progressing well and give the state an advantage over others, according to an attorney representing the state.
Rhon Jones, of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, said Alabama is the only state with a case pending before the New Orleans-based federal judge with responsibility over all litigation filed over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
“I think that is incredibly significant because it gives Alabama a position in the litigation that other states don’t have, at least not yet,” Jones said. “This is one area where Alabama has a leg up.”
King filed the lawsuits – one against BP and the other against other companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded April 20 and sank two days later – and then hired Beasley Allen to handle the litigation.
The move proved immediately controversial, with Gov. Bob Riley sharply criticizing his fellow Republican for taking the matter to court before the state had submitted a claim.
Incoming Attorney General Luther Strange, who defeated King in the GOP primary, has not said what he plans to do with the suits. His spokeswoman, Jessica Garrison, called it “way too premature” to take a position.
“He’s still working through all the different issues,” she said.
Although the state could likely refile the complaints if it withdrew them, Jones argued it would be best to leave the lawsuits in place, in order to keep pressure on the oil giant.
“Regardless, dismissing the lawsuits would be a mistake,” he said. “It would send the wrong message to BP. And it would send the wrong message to the people of Alabama.”
The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation decided earlier this year that U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier will oversee all of the pretrial exchange of documents and questioning of witnesses that takes place in a civil suit. He also could preside over one or more “bellwether” cases to help the parties negotiate a settlement.
James Beck, an attorney from Philadelphia who has extensive experience with multidistrict litigation, downplayed the significance of Alabama getting to the courthouse first. Other states, if they file suits, will get added to the litigation, he said.
“There’s probably a minor tactical advantage to filing first. It’s probably not much,” said Beck, of Dechert LLP.
Of greater importance, he said, is Beasley Allen’s seat on the steering committee that is coordinating the case for the plaintiffs.
“It’s quite important to be on the steering committee,” said Beck, whose work has included product liability cases involving tobacco, Vioxx, Paxil and Seroquel. “They decide how to dole out the work.”
Fifteen lawyers serve on the committee.
Jones said Barbier has indicated that he wants to start trying test cases to determine economic damages in the middle of next year, with a trial in February 2012 to determine if rig owner Transocean Ltd. is liable for an amount beyond the cost of the Deepwater Horizon. That would be the case if plaintiffs can prove that Transocean had knowledge of other defendants’ wrongdoing.
Jones said the test cases will likely include individual plaintiffs in different categories. For instance, one trial might involve a Gulf fisherman, another a restaurant and another a condominium owner.
The idea, experts said, is to pick representative plaintiffs to give all parties an idea of the total liability and damages for all plaintiffs.
“You don’t want to have too many good ones or too many bad ones,” Beck said.
Jones said the trials will be instructive for the parties and the public.
“It will show the world what really did or did not happen on the rig,” he said.
Jones said he believes BP and the other companies will be under pressure to settle.
“I think it will get done faster than most people think.”
Beck agreed, adding that BP’s public relations interests make a “scorched earth litigation” strategy unlikely.
“BP’s interest is to get the litigation behind them as quickly as possible and, second, to do it as cheaply as possible,” he said.