Oil and water don’t mix – and, apparently,federal and state Attorneys General feel likewise about having their claims overseen by the “big money pot in the little one” Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee appointed by Judge Barbier.
Rebecca Mowbray reports one chapter of the story in the Money section of today’s Times-Picayune:
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier told participants in the BP oil spill litigation Friday that he wasn’t trying to deny the state of Louisiana a voice in the proceedings when he rejected a motion for a special government track Thursday. He’s just trying to make the litigation more efficient, Barbier said…
Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell…[a]Appearing at his first monthly oil spill status conference Friday morning, Caldwell said he wasn’t reassured by what Barbier said and is evaluating the state’s legal options.
“The state’s claims are still subject to the plaintiffs steering committee,” Caldwell said, noting that Barbier also didn’t rule on Louisiana’s request to bar private attorneys from sharing any proceeds ultimately due to the state. With Gulf Coast Claims Facility Administrator Kenneth Feinberg settling claims and removing plaintiffs from the litigation, the concern is that public recoveries could become the deepest pockets in the litigation, and that governmental bodies could be forced to share if they’re operating under the auspices of the plaintiffs committee.
“I want Mr. Feinberg to continue paying claims, but I want the process to be transparent, fair and fast,” Hood said in a written statement. “If the court does not take control, we will be sending Mr. Feinberg a civil investigative demand which will inevitably lead to needless litigation and expense.”Hood said the current claims process may be taking advantage of Mississippians looking to recoup lost revenue. He wants to determine whether the statistics being provided are accurate and claims are being distribute fairly.
Hood’s concern surfaced earlier in the month when the Clarion-Ledger reported, “A large Jackson law firm that counts BP among its clients is now assisting those injured by the spill as they seek payments from the oil giant“.
Ed Brunini, a senior partner at Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes, said there is an ethical wall between the work the firm has done on behalf of BP and that it is doing for Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
According to the Clarion-Ledger story, it appears “some claimants, Gulf Coast legislators and the attorney general” may believe the ethical wall has a crack. Perhaps some have similar concerns about the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee.
Mowbray, however, reports that Barbie, “said several times Friday that his primary concern is keeping the massive consolidated case, easily the largest ever in Louisiana, moving at an efficient clip”:
A maritime trial known as a “limitation of liability” proceeding is scheduled for Feb. 27, 2012 — the Monday after Mardi Gras — and will determine the proportion of fault in the explosion and subsequent 86-day oil release. To stay on schedule, all depositions in the case are required to be completed in July.
The notion of a “government track” is a nonstarter for the court because the government would be in charge of its own depositions schedules, and witnesses would end up being deposed twice, making it almost impossible for depositions to be completed on time. To make sure that all parties have enough time for their questions, Barbier said Friday that each deposition jointly scheduled by the plaintiff and defense committees that are managing the litigation could last as long as 15 hours instead of eight hours. “The primary reason I did this was to try to accommodate the government interests,” Barbier said.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange was chosen as the “coordinating counsel for state interests” because Alabama is the only state that filed its own lawsuit in the litigation rather than Louisiana’s more limited “declaratory action” against Transocean, leaving open the possibility that Louisiana could be thinking about pursuing broader claims in state court. Strange’s appointment also lends geographic and political diversity to the committee of plaintiff attorneys in the litigation, which is heavily tilted toward Louisiana. It also puts an actual attorney general in the litigation, while Louisiana had suggested Allan Kanner, an environmental and mass action attorney who is serving as Caldwell’s special counsel in the spill litigation.
As for the concern about private plaintiff attorneys raiding state financial recoveries, it’s simply too early to tell who’s going to be doing the heavy lifting in the litigation. Once the case moves into the damages phase, there are opportunities to affirm the sovereignty of states participating in the litigation and their rights to pursue cases as they see fit. “I realize there may be divergence down the line,” Barbier said.
Adding a bit of irony to the mix, the Clarion-Ledger quoted Alabama, Sen. Richard Shelby,who never met an insurance company he didn’t like, is concerned about oil spill claims:
Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby,who has met with Feinberg several times, said the claims facility “is not acting with appropriate urgency. Nine months since the oil spill, 57 percent of claims in Alabama remain unpaid,” Shelby said. “This amounts to 38,604 individual and business claims that have not received one penny in funding. That is a startling statistic.”
Senator Shelby’s concern is startling as well; but, somehow I feel there may be many more startling moments as the oil spill litigation moves forward.