Lawyers without borders

By The West Virginia Record | May 14, 2010

"I expect this will keep me busy for quite a while."

That's the forecast of Ed Hill of the Charleston law firm of Hill Peterson Carper Bee & Deitzler, who's working as counsel in three class-action complaints on behalf of Gulf Coast fishermen and shrimpers seeking damages for the adverse affects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Hill's expectations undoubtedly are correct. His skill at capitalizing on calamity will keep him busy. It almost certainly will make him wealthier. But will it make a significant contribution to the lives of the plaintiffs, remedy the environmental damage done by the spill, or prevent future disasters? That seems a long shot.

Hill is collaborating with Robert Kennedy Jr.'s Environmental Law Group and other green (the color of money) firms. Lawyers already are boning up on litigation that followed the Exxon Valdez disaster 21 years ago, with an eye toward replicating the $2 billion in punitive damages awarded in that case, little of which contributed to the cleanup of Prince William Sound in Alaska.

Critics of the class-action damage crowd say such efforts accomplish much for checkbooks of the suing lawyers and precious little for those harmed. But it triggers harm for the citizenry at large.

The worst fallout from the Gulf oil spill may not be environmental, but political. With our nation overly dependent on foreign oil and our economy in a shambles, the recent public demand for increased offshore drilling offered a golden opportunity to reduce oil dependency and revitalize the economy. If opportunistic legal actions depress the public demand for expanded offshore drilling, that golden opportunity may be lost.

The common good needs to be the first concern. A growing cadre of glorified ambulance chasers is not now or ever a priority need.

The country suffered a terrible, accidental oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The parties responsible are doing everything possible to clean it up. Some Gulf coast people will have their lives inconvenienced or worse as a result. The oil company has gone on record promising to make them whole.

Will a bunch of opportunistic law suits that could prolong our economic malaise and perpetuate our dangerous reliance on foreign oil resolve the problems caused by the spill? Will those fees-laden suits prevent a future spill?

And finally, how much of the "coast" of West Virginia or Charleston was affected by the spill?

No matter. When opportunity knocks, the plaintiff's bar knows how to find it.

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