NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Legal heavy hitters are preparing lawsuits against BP as the nation’s worst manmade environmental disaster continues. “I know BP very well,” Tony Buzbee said in an interview. “I’ve handled more than 300 cases against them in the last five years. … I hate them. I think they’re a horrible company. They’ve paid more than $300 million in the last six or eight years on behalf of my clients to settle.”
Buzbee, of Houston, represented 10 workers who were sickened by a chemical release in BP’s Texas City refinery in 2007; a Texas jury awarded them $100 million in December 2009.
BP’s Texas City refinery has a troubled and costly history. A previous explosion, in March 2005, killed 15 workers and injured hundreds. Buzbee handled 180 cases from the 2005 BP explosion.
Buzbee also won a $15 million verdict against Transocean, and a $6.2 million verdict against Halliburton. Now he is representing hundreds of fishermen and business owners affected by the spill, and 18 of the surviving crewmembers who were aboard the Deepwater Horizon.
The rig exploded April 20, killing 11 and leaving BP’s Macondo Prospect well pouring as much as 2.5 million gallons a day into the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the survivors Buzbee is representing were employed by Transocean.
“The most compelling evidence [in the rig workers’ cases] is the conversation that took place aboard the Damon Bankston,” Buzbee said.
The Damon Bankston work boat sat beside the Deepwater Horizon to collect drilling mud and became a lifeboat for workers after the explosion.
When a top-ranking Transocean employee, Jimmy Harrell, escaped onto the Damon Bankston from the burning rig, he called an official in Houston on a satellite phone. Buzbee said that according to an employee account Harrell “was screaming at the top of his lungs: ‘I fucking told you so! I fucking told you so!’ Which tells me there was a real disconnect between the people on the rig and the people in Houston.”
Harrell “was a rig manager,” Buzbee said. “One of the only rig managers aboard who actually survived – because most of them died – and the fact that he was saying ‘I told you so'” indicates there was a problem “between BP and Transocean – whatever the case was.”
Before the rig exploded, “There was a negative pressure test that was performed twice and failed,” Buzbee said.
Buzbee said the evidence is compelling and indicates negligence. He added that even without Harrell’s conversation, survivors of the Deepwater Horizon have a good case.
“Usually in an admiralty case, when the vessel sinks, there’s a presumption the vessel owner was negligent” because “it is unfair for a crewmember who was on the ship to have to prove why the ship sank,” Buzbee said.
“There’s no doubt as a matter of law they will be found liable,” he said. “All the focus has been on BP so far. And BP is a good whipping post because BP has such a horrid record.”
Attorney Daniel Becnel Jr., of Reserve, La., handled a $330 million settlement with Murphy Oil in 2006. He compared the shared liability between BP and Transocean with drunk driving.
“It’s like we’re riding in the back seat of a car and the driver’s drunk, and we know he’s drunk, but neither of us says anything,” Becnel said. “We’re still responsible.”
Becnel estimated the company’s actual damages from the spill at $39 billion to $50 billion, and said that BP has hired bankruptcy attorneys in New Orleans.
He did not say that BP is preparing to file for bankruptcy, and declined to name the firm the company hired, but said that for the past month BP has paid attorneys $1,100 an hour to work for 10 to 12 hours a day.
Becnel said that he has filed four types of oil spill-related claims on behalf of clients: environmental claims, which he called “really complicated.” Becnel said such claims should be filed by the government, but that has not been done.
“Really, [environmental] claims should have been brought by the state attorneys general. But they’re not doing it because of the “cozy relationship with oil & gas,” Becnel said.
“Let’s face it: when Judge [Martin] Feldman had his [moratorium] hearing, what do they want?” he asked. Becnel said the judge and those who approved his ruling to lift the moratorium on deepwater drilling were worried about the economy, as seen through the oil and gas industry’s lenses.
Becnel said environmentalists and their organizations are “the only people bringing these cases.”
The second type of claim is for economic loss, filed by fishermen and business owners.
The third type is against Transocean. Because of Transocean’s petition in May, to limit its liability, people or businesses that want to file a claim against the rig manufacturer must file in Houston and have just 4 more months to do so, under the 6-month statute of limitations that began running in May.
The fourth type of claim Becnel’s firm is handling seeks damages under the RICO Act, seeking criminal penalties for acts performed as part of a criminal organization. Becnel said so far he has filed one such complaint, in Miami, and one in Lafayette, La., last week.
The RICO class action in Lafayette was filed on behalf of named plaintiff Armand’s Bistro. It claims that BP and Transocean engaged in a “scheme to secure billions of dollars in profits by committing a pattern of criminal predicate acts, including bribery, mail and wire fraud, the object of which was to fraudulently obtain oil by deceiving the public regarding [the companies’] ability to safely conduct offshore drilling operations and effectively contain any oil spills that might occur in connection with such operations.”
This complaint claims that BP’s and Transocean’s “highly-touted safety procedures were a sham.”
The class action cites the 2005 Texas City BP refinery explosion and other incidents as examples of BP’s “egregious history of safety violations.” It estimated financial losses from the refinery explosion at more than $1.5 billion.
In 2009 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its largest fine in history to BP – $87 million – finding that BP had not corrected safety violations at the Texas City plant, and declaring that BP had a “serious systematic safety problem.”
The class action cites a May 5 shareholder derivative complaint that claims BP cut costs, including for safety and maintenance, to boost profits to report to Wall Street; and it claims that BP lobbied the federal and state governments to remove or cut back the safety and maintenance regulations of the company’s Gulf operations, claiming against all evidence that “voluntary compliance” would suffice to address safety and environmental concerns.
The class also claims that former BP CEO Lord John Browne “was personally implicated by a high-level BP employee as being involved in a multimillion dollar criminal bribery scheme to unlawfully influence government officials …”
“Les Abrahams, who had led BP’s successful bid for oil rights in Azerbaijan stated publicly that line item expenditures on BP’s books were not what they seemed, according to the Armand’s Bistro class action. “According to Mr. Abrahams, BP allocated a budget of £45 million to cover costs for Azerbaijani operations which involved alcohol and prostitutes. According to Mr. Abrahams, ‘The BP officials would come out to Baku in groups of five or six, every week. Sometimes I would charter an entire Boeing 757 to carry as few as seven staff.’ Their main base was the hard currency bar of the old Intourist hotel … It was full of prostitutes and many of us, including me, used them on a regular bases, although we quickly established they all worked for the KGB.’ Similar allegations were raised alleging that BP was involved in bribing government officials in Kazakhstan for oil rights,” according to the Armand’s Bistro complaint.
According to a Transocean company newsletter, in both 2008 and 2009 the U.S. Minerals Management Service awarded Transocean its top award, the Safety Award for Excellence (SAFE), for, among other things, the Deepwater Horizon’s “outstanding drilling operations” and “perfect performance period.”
Transocean was one of the finalists for the Minerals Management Service award this year when the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank.