Since the oil rig accident in the Gulf of Mexico last month, attorneys and staff personnel for Montgomery’s Beasley Allen law firm have been working almost around the clock assessing claims of those who may be adversely impacted by the economic and ecological disaster.

Rhon Jones, who heads the firm’s environmental practice, has been leading  Beasley-Allen’s efforts. In an interview last Thursday, Jones said the number of people the oil spill could impact is immense.

“It’s going to have a huge ripple effect … it could be a multi-billion dollar impact when all is said and done,” Jones said.

The oil spill is effecting individuals, families and businesses large and small from states from Texas to Florida, said Jones.

He mentioned charter fishermen, commercial fishermen, seafood processors, individuals and companies that rent beach condos and homes, souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels and property owners as only the most obvious groups who have or will be impacted by the giant BP spill.

The “ripple effect” also touches anyone who derives income from Gulf industries. This includes maintenance people and house keepers who depend on tourists booking stays at the beach. Vendors who support tourism – such as ice vendors, beverage distributors, gas stations and convenience stores and transportation workers.

Even businesses located along the highways leading to and from the Gulf will likely see a decrease in business because of the spill, Jones noted.

Staff at Beasley Allen have already taken hundreds of calls from individuals and business owners who believe they might have a claim against BP or the other possible defendants. As of last Thursday, the firm had filed five lawsuits (one in Louisiana and four in Alabama).

Approximately 70 to 90 lawsuits have already been filed by other attorneys representing plaintiffs, according to Jones.

To illustrate the indirect consequences of the disaster, Jones mentioned one call the firm had received from a business in central Alabama that manufactures boats used on the Gulf Coast and has seen customers cancel orders. He said the firm had also received an inquiry from a publisher of a specialty magazine that caters to  condo owners. This person’s business (selling advertising) is already “way off.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jones, 45, a native of Troy who grew up visiting the beaches of the Panhandle and owns a rental condo in Destin himself. “You think  you fully understand how important the appearance of the beaches are for tourism and all of the businesses that operate out of the Gulf and then something of this scale happens and you fully realize how many people depend on this resource.”

At Beasley Allen, eight attorneys have been assigned to evaluate and help those with potential claims. Another eight to 10 support personnel are assisting these attorneys and potential clients.

By comparison, Jones said BP probably has hundreds of attorneys attempting to reach settlements. Other firms who may be held liable include Halliburton, TransOcean (which owned the giant vessel that sunk after an explosion that claimed 11 lives) and other manufacturers who built equipment used on the rig.

“We’ve had our hands full trying to accommodate all of the folks (who are seeking legal assistance)” said Jones, who has visited the Gulf several times. He describes work days lasting well into the night and into the weekend.

“You want to do something for them. They are really hurting,” he said.

The spill could not have happened at a worse time, Jones noted. Many businesses make a large portion of their income for the entire year in the tourism seasons spanning roughly from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Although oil has not washed up on many beaches yet, bookings are already off significantly.

Many visitors to the Gulf beaches travel 10 hours or more to reach the beach areas.

Such families and individuals are not going to make reservations and make such a long trip on the proposition “that things might be okay,” he said.

Instead, they’ll book vacations nearer home or in, say, South Carolina or North Carolina resort areas.

Those who work in some part of the the seafood industry are particularly vulnerable, he said.

“I hate it, but some businesses are going to have to close,” he said.

Domestic harvests of seafood will be dramatically reduced or non-existent in the months when sales are usually highest.

Many people who provide seafood or oysters (or process these catches) have worked in this field their entire lives and their families may have been in it for generations, noted Jones. They don’t have any other realistic means of making a living and they “have note payments and mortgages,” Jones said.

Furthermore, the impact might be felt beyond this year if the spill closes or damages certain proven fishing areas.

Potential claimants need to consider such “long-term” potential impacts on their livelihood before entering any legal settlement, Jones stressed.

“What if your harvest is off 10 to 20 percent next year?” he asked. “How are you going to value this?”

Jones said anyone who might have a claim should contact an attorney and endeavor to keep and preserve all economic records.

It will be important to document the extent business may have dropped off from one year to the next, he said.

Litigation will “be complicated and complex,” predicted Jones, noting that most cases will hopefully be consolidated and expedited b y the appropriate judicial branch.

He said Beasley Allen has a “niche” in litigating and representing clients impacted by major environmental events.

But nothing compares to what’s happened in the Gulf of Mexico, said Jones.

The most obvious comparison would be the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

However, that only effected one area of one state in an area that did not generate billions of dollars through tourism.

The Gulf Spill is impacting individuals and businesses from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida in an area that produces much of the domestic seafood for the country and attracts millions of visitors to their beaches.

The spill also happened just when Gulf Coast areas seemed to be recovering from a series of hurricanes and a Great Recession.

Anyone with a valid claim needs an attorney “who will fight for them” as they try to survive this man-made disaster, said Jones.

This article appeared in The Montgomery Independent on May 27, 2010.

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