This newspaper advertisement announcing the informational meeting was featured in The Moundsville Daily Echo.
CHARLESTON – A statewide legal reform group is questioning the motives behind a community informational meeting scheduled for Friday in Marshall County.
The New York-based personal injury law firm Weitz & Luxenberg is putting on the event, which is touted as a public forum for Marshall County residents to raise concerns about the adverse effects of natural gas drilling in the area. West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse voices its support for any concerns that local residents may have about increased drilling in the area, but the group also warns those attending to go in with their eyes open.
"Area residents need to realize that while this law-firm-sponsored event is held out as a 'public forum,' an ulterior motive could be to sign up plaintiffs for potential future lawsuits," WV CALA Executive Director Richie Heath said Thursday. "Anyone attending should go in knowing that the out-of-state personal injury law firm providing them with information has a profit motive for doing so.
"Area residents need to ask themselves why a New York-based personal injury law firm is interested all of the sudden in holding informational meetings in Cameron, West Virginia."
Robert Bardin, an attorney for the Weitz & Luxenberg law firm who is listed in a newspaper ad for the meeting, said Thursday the meeting is to discuss gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which is also known as fracking.
"It's open to the public and the community," Bardin said. "There will be, I think, a PowerPoint presentation. And one or two attorneys will be there to answer questions and hear concerns."
A press release about the meeting said the law firm had been invited to the area for the meeting. Bardin confirmed that Thursday, but said he wouldn't name who invited them for privacy concerns.
"We have people who have been working with these people and who have been in contact with them," he said. "And we do have attorneys who are admitted to practice law in West Virginia."
In a press release from the Weitz & Luxenberg firm about the meeting, it says the meeting is "intended to create a public and open forum for residents to voice their concerns."
"Our clients and other residents of Marshall County and the greater Ohio Valley are troubled by what they are experiencing," said Julia LeMense, an environmental attorney with Weitz & Luxenberg who will be in attendance at the meeting. "They are justifiably concerned about the safety of their air, water and the overall health of their community."
The release says Weitz & Luxenberg represents clients in a number of communities in West Virginia and Pennsylvania who have methane in their drinking water wells at unsafe levels. The firm has conducted preliminary investigations at several locations in West Virginia and Pennsylvania to identify the impacts of unconventional natural gas drilling, hydraulic fracturing and gas storage on air and water.
The newspaper ad about the meeting features a photograph of Erin Brockovich, who spearheaded a case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company in California in 1993. Her story became a popular movie starring Julia Roberts.
Today, Brockovich is president of Brockovich Research & Consulting, a consulting firm. She works as a consultant for Weitz & Luxenberg, which has a focus on personal injury claims for asbestos exposure.
In the ad, Brockovich says, "I know and work with this law firm and I trust them."
Heath of WV CALA notes that personal injury lawyers have recently targeted natural gas companies in West Virginia, with one high-profile lawsuit resulting in a $405 million verdict which cost the state hundreds of jobs and millions in economic investment.
Personal injury lawyers like West Virginia courtrooms for filing environmental lawsuits because of the state's "No proof? No problem!" medical monitoring standard, which allows lawyers to file suit without proof of injury.
This past year, Supreme Court Justice Menis Ketchum warned that "plaintiffs' lawyers ... will wreak enormous economic harm on West Virginia's economy" through unchecked medical monitoring lawsuits.