GULFPORT, Miss. – Apparently there were two messes in need of cleanup following the Deepwater Horizon disaster – the oil, of course, and the subsequent allegations of fraud against plaintiff’s attorneys who sought to sign victims up in mass.
At the front of the controversy is Texas trial lawyer Mikal Watts, whose criminal trial is set to start next Monday.
In September, Watts was indicted on allegations that he committed fraud when purportedly signed up more than 40,000 coastal clients after the 2010 spill – a showy number that helped put him at the head of the plaintiffs’ steering committee.
The following month, the indictment was unsealed, revealing Watts and his co-defendants allegedly fabricated thousands of clients, including the representation of a dog by the name of Lucy Lu.
Prior to the indictment, Watts’ firm had reached a $2.3 billion settlement with BP on behalf of the 41,000 seafood workers he purportedly represented.
However, Watts is not the only plaintiff’s attorney to make headlines in the past year.
In March, a lawsuit, based on the indictment, was filed in Houston, seeking an award of $100 million in exemplary damages against Texas attorneys John Cracken and Bob Hilliard for allegedly using case runners to steal the identities of Vietnamese-Americans damaged by the oil spill.
Plaintiff Thim Nguyen, a Louisiana resident, claimed to be one of “tens of thousands of victims” whose names and identities “were egregiously stolen or conspired to be stolen” by the two attorneys.
More recently, in May four respective plaintiffs, all represented by the Waltzer, Wiygul & Garside in their suits against BP, filed a complaint against the New Orleans law firm, alleging Waltzer Wiygul turned their original low-dollar claims into high-dollar ones without permission.
The complaint was authored by Thoai Nguyen, who worked at the Louisiana Small Development Center from 2008 to 2013. The center provides technical assistance and translation services to clients and personally worked with all four plaintiffs at one point.
In the complaint, Nguyen says the center “soon noticed a common pattern: retainer agreements that were solicited unethically and then used as the basis for attorney representation and liens; attorneys misinforming and misrepresenting clients; (and) attorneys preying on clients based on their lack of knowledge and limited English language proficiency.”
“Although the four cases differ regarding the specifics, they all exhibit the same pattern: a client approaches or is approached by Waltzer, Wiygul & Garside regarding the (Vessels of Opportunity) program; he thinks that he is retaining (the firm) only for the VoO claim, but (the firm) fraudulently misleads him extending and applying the retainer agreement to (Deepwater Horizon Economic Claims Center) claims,” the complaint states.
The VoO program was established to include fishermen and their vessels to participate in the cleanup process. Most of the program was completed in 2010 and resulted in two types of claims – vessel damage and breach of contract claims.
“It is worth pointing out that in 2011, when most of the retainer agreements by the four clients were signed, DHECC was not even set up yet, and this is evident from the retainer agreement itself as there is no mention of DHECC claims,” the complaint states.