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."