Profitable punishment

The SE Texas Record Jan. 6, 2008, 12:19pm

When is enough thrashing enough for BP?

Not until there's no more money in it for some lawyers in the Southeast Texas plaintiff's bar, apparently.

That may be the best explanation for the latest trial lawyer PR offensive against the UK-based oil giant, three years after a tragic explosion at its Texas City refinery killed 15 workers.

The company to date has agreed to spend $5 billion upgrading its plants to ensure it doesn't happen again. It has paid $1.6 billion in civil penalties to 2,400 injured workers and their families. Now, it's set to cough up another $373 million in fines to the U.S. government, including a $50 million fine for violating the Clean Air Act.

But four lawyers still suing BP, including Beaumont's Brent Coon, are calling on U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal to throw out the company's plea agreement with the U.S. Justice Department and raise that criminal fine from $50 million to $1 billion.

Coon and company didn't emphasize during their "Increase BP's Fine" holiday publicity tour that they and others still have 1,200 private lawsuits pending against the company-- lawsuits whose settlement value will directly benefit from any increased leverage they're able to muster.

Of course, don't suggest these lawyers are barking only to ratchet up future legal fees. This isn't about them, they insist.

As always, the lawyers are doing it for you and I, out of the goodness of their litigating hearts.

"If we don't hold corporations in check, the average person doesn't stand a chance," Coon colleague and uber-wealthy trial lawyer Mark Lanier said to the Houston Chronicle.

When Lanier says "average person," he doesn't mean himself. In Northwest Houston, he lives on a 20-acre spread in a 24,000-square-foot Spanish colonial mansion. His most recent Christmas party--for 5,000 people--featured live music by country music stars Brooks & Dunn.

A little bigger and more festive than yours?

Mr. Lanier won't feel it personally, but in the long run this region could pay a tall economic price for this relentless piling on.

Don't think investors and top executives at multinational corporations haven't noticed the local trial lawyer feeding frenzy that has followed the tragedy in Texas City. Don't think they aren't concerned with this kind of Southeast Texas justice, or that the risks of operating here won't figure into their decision making the next time they need to build a new plant or expand capacity.

It's distasteful to see private lawyers use the press to pressure a judge into indirectly doing their personal bidding. Here's hoping Judge Rosenthal disregards their grandstanding and puts this matter behind us. It's time to accept BP's apology and move on.

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