Lanier says plaintiff's bar faces battle royal over oil spill suits, fears BP bankruptcy

David Yates Aug. 13, 2010, 7:21am


HOUSTON-For at least one trial lawyer, the biggest possible disaster arising from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill isn't environmental, but rather BP declaring bankruptcy in the face of an endless stream of lawsuits.

While addressing the Oil Spill Litigation Conference in Houston on Thursday, plaintiff's attorney Mark Lanier said trial lawyers face three challenges in the wake of the world's largest unintentional oil spill: the fight among themselves for cases; the legal system; and the least worrisome, the defendants.

Lanier, a Houston attorney known for his charisma and mega-million dollar verdicts in asbestos and products liability cases, admitted the "scariest" scenario threatening the plaintiff's bar is not an extraordinary defense strategy, but a potential BP bankruptcy ensuing from the looming litigation "free-for-all."

DRI, a defense bar organization, hosted the seminar on the Gulf oil spill litigation flowing from the Deepwater Horizon explosion at the Houstonian Hotel in Houston on Aug. 12.

Lanier attended the event as a guest speaker on the topic "Strategy from the Plaintiff's Perspective." Dressed casually in a T-shirt, jacket and jeans amid a sea of business suits, Lanier pointed out that he did not speak for plaintiff's bar but was only offering his personal perspective.

"I love you guys. (The defense bar) pays my bills," Lanier said in a humorous tone. "It's the other plaintiff's attorneys I have to fight."

Lanier called the BP oil spill an "interesting mess" that could result in the "largest tort in history, and what a pity it would be if I'm not involved. That's what almost all plaintiffs' lawyers are thinking."

Although he did not give any names, Lanier said people have attempted to sell him BP cases and that less scrupulous attorneys even started cold calling victims' families immediately after the April 20 tragedy.

Lanier called such behavior barratry – the act of creating legal business by stirring up disputes – and "stomach turning."

"The fight for power is with other plaintiff's attorneys," Lanier said. "While we sit in this room, deals are being made. It's like trading cigarettes in prison."

After trial lawyers finish posturing for control over the litigation, Lanier said plaintiff's attorneys will fight the system next, expressing comical apprehension over BP's choice to hire Ken Feinberg to head up the $20 billion settlement fund.

Recently, Feinberg publicly stated that claimants will not need an attorney to receive money from the fund – a remark that has left trial lawyers, such as Lanier, pondering their future role.

"Personally, I think everyone need's an attorney," Lanier joked. "This fund has raised a lot of unanswered questions. What is this, 'Let's Make a Deal' with Monty Hall?"

Now that the Judicial Panel on Multi District Litigation has formed an MDL in the federal 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans, Lanier believes the best solution is to roll BP cases into a class action, which could be problematic he said, since federal judges in New Orleans aren't usually too keen on certifying class actions.

"These (oil spill) suits will outlive us and become like the asbestos fiasco ... if they're not consolidated into a class action," Lanier said. "This is not a well orchestrated ballet. It's going to be a free-for-all."

In a dramatic end to his speech, Lanier said he wouldn't discuss the "scariest possibility of all," then showed a slide of a fake headline: "BP declares bankruptcy."

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