CHARLESTON -- The BP oil spill is about 1,000 miles away, but a Charleston law firm is working on some class-action lawsuits resulting from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ed Hill of the law firm of Hill Peterson Carper Bee & Deitzler said he's working as counsel with commercial fishermen and shrimpers in three class-action complaints already filed in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida.
So, how did a Charleston, W.Va., law firm get involved in what might become one of the largest toxic tort cases in U.S. history?
"Our involvement came about as a result of working with the Robert F. Kennedy Jr. firm (Kennedy Environmental Law Group), the Cochran firm in Alabama, and the Papantonio firm (Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Echsner, Rafferty & Proctor) in Pensacola on the DuPont smelter case," Hill said. "They specialize in environmental cases."
In the DuPont case, Hill and his firm served as appellate counsel.
Hill said he and the other firms involved on the Gulf cases currently are seeking class certification.
"We recognized that at when we filed it, it was obvious our clients would be severely impacted economically," he said. "The complaints were filed last week. And, of course, it is now apparent that this spill is much worse than we first imagined. It already has exceeded the Exxon Valdez disaster."
He said these are the only Gulf cases his firm is working on right now.
"It's nothing more than fishermen and shrimpers as of yet," Hill said. "It probably will be sent to a MDL judge to handle the discovery in all of the suits. The list of plaintiffs will grow. We already have been involved in the hiring of experts."
Hill said he and the other attorneys involved will be examining the litigation that followed the Exxon Valdez disaster.
"That litigation lasted 21 years," he said. "There were multiple appeals, a jury verdict, hundreds of millions of dollars in compensatory damages and $5 billion in punitive damages."
An appeal went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which found that because it was a maritime cause of action, the punitive damages were cut to $2 billion.
"But there are lessons to be learned from that litigation," Hill said. "The whole idea with the consortium of law firms sharing the workload, the expenses, utilizing technology and experts that it won't take that long."
The law firms involved are the Kennedy Environmental Law Group: Kennedy & Madonna, LLP; The Cochran Firm. P.C.; Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Echsner, Rafferty & Proctor, P.A.; Weitz & Luxenberg, P.C.; Becnel Law Firm LLC; Herman Herman Katz & Cotlar LLP; Salas & Co., LC.; Neblett, Beard & Arsenault; Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee; Parker Waichman Alonso, LLP; and Lambert & Nelson, PLC.
Hill said he and the team of attorneys are watching the Gulf damage as it "still is occurring."
"It has spread, of course," he said. "There are three leaks. It could be several months before the primary wellhead is stopped. The leak is about 5,000 barrels a day, and 1,000 barrels is equal to 42,000 gallons. So it's a lot of oil.
"There are strong currents, winds ... it will reach the beaches in the Gulf. And it might be swept around the southern tip of Florida and reach East Coast.
"It already is having a devastating effect off the coast of Louisiana. We're talking about a long-term environmental impact that will greatly affect the economy of the area."
He said the Gulf is a huge source of shrimp.
"This will have a devastating effect on shrimping," Hill said. "The sportfish will just move away. But also, crustaceans, oysters and coral reefs will be devastated."
Still, Hill said he's honored to be a part of the litigation team.
"We're working with national counsel with national reputations with excellent staffs," he said. "We have enjoyed working with these law firms in the past, and I expect this will keep me busy for quite a while."