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BP Transocean oil spill

A lawyer who resigned abruptly from the office handling BP oil spill claims has denied allegations he accepted kickbacks from lawyers with claims pending in the process, saying the money was paid for earlier work and that his aim was to hide it from his wife — who also happened to work at the claims office — rather than to conceal anything improper. [New Orleans Times-Picayune]

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November 6 roundup

by Walter Olson on November 6, 2014

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We’ve occasionally taken note that relators stepping forward under whistleblower laws are not always the public benefactors implied by the term whistleblower. Now here’s this from a suit that a former contractor filed, teaming up with well-connected environmental group Food and Water Watch [Bloomberg]:

“BP never misrepresented — much less knowingly distorted what it was doing,” U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes in Houston said today in a 10-page summary ruling, finding that the case was ultimately about “paperwork wrinkles” instead of engineering shortcuts.

Abbott and the environmentalists “have not blown a whistle,” he said. “They have blown their own horn.”

July 10 roundup

by Walter Olson on July 10, 2014

  • Supreme Court agrees to hear case in which feds claim right to ignore deadlines for suit-filing because of Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act (WSLA), passed in 1942 [my new Cato post, earlier]
  • As we’ve advised before, don’t run 10K races while your claim of low-speed-crash injury is pending [Philly.com]
  • Incentivizing complaint-filing: State Bar of California pushes “urgency legislation” empowering it to collect $2500 per enforcement action from targets of its efforts against unauthorized practice of law; association of non-lawyer preparers of legal documents calls it “a cleverly designed effort by the Bar to seek additional revenue from non-members of the Bar.” [Dan Walters, Sacramento Bee via KafkaEsq]
  • Feds get earful on Hawaiian tribalization plan [KHON, Indian Country Today, more, earlier]
  • BP: “Legal feeding frenzy continues four years after the spill” [Melissa Landry, The Hayride]
  • Danke schön! “Overlawyered ist übrigens ein vorzügliches Blog, das sehr oft sehr gute Postings hat zu den Irrungen und Wirrungen des US-amerikanischen Rechtssystems” [Lawblog.de comment]
  • There’ll always be a Berkeley: California city requires medical marijuana dispensaries to set aside some product for free use by indigent and homeless [Reason, KCBS]

Paul Barrett at Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

Judge Edith Brown Clement is waving her arms, jumping up and down —- heck, doing everything but setting her office furniture on fire —- to draw the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court to the zany goings on in New Orleans concerning BP (BP) and its oil spill liability. … She probably won’t succeed, but her exertions are both colorful and edifying. …

“The class of people who will recover from this settlement continues to include significant numbers of people whose losses, if any, were not caused by BP,” Clement wrote [in her dissent from an en banc Fifth Circuit rebuff of the oil company]. “Our courts’ decisions would allow payments to ‘victims’ such as a wireless phone company store that burned down and a RV park owner that was foreclosed on before the spill.” Those are real examples she’s pointing to, not law school exam hypotheticals.

“These are certainly absurd results,” Clement continued. “And despite our colleagues’ continued efforts to shift the blame for these absurdities to BP’s lawyers, it remains the fact that we are party to this fraud.” Clement is willing to acknowledge that in its desperation to avoid a trial, the company’s attorneys agreed to a loosey-goosey, uncapped settlement. Maybe those lawyers deserve to be fired. But having created an opportunity for a plaintiffs’ bar feeding frenzy, BP should not be punished by having its corporate treasury ransacked with the approval of the federal judiciary, she added.

Whole thing here.

Ethics roundup

by Walter Olson on May 13, 2014

  • If you doubt lawyers can be heroes, consider Rashid Rehman, gunned down after defying death threats to represent university lecturer in Pakistan blasphemy case [BBC]
  • Some asbestos lawyers may have reason to be nervous as Garlock documents pave way for fraud-checking [Daniel Fisher/Forbes, Legal NewsLine, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle] Given consumer groups’ zeal for making litigation data public, they’ll support greater transparency in asbestos settlements, right? [WLF]
  • “Colloquium: The Legal Profession’s Monopoly on the Practice of Law” with John McGinnis and Russell Pearce, Benjamin Barton and others [Fordham Law Review]
  • “BP’s Billions Draw Scam Artists” [Amanda Bronstad, NLJ; NYTimes ("They told us we don't even need a lawyer"); Insurance Journal]
  • “South Carolina: LegalZoom is not the Unauthorized Practice of Law” [Legal Ethics Forum]
  • Black lung series with legal ethics angle wins Pulitzer [Chris Hamby/Center for Public Integrity, earlier]
  • Much more to come in Chevron saga as oil company seeks $32 million in attorneys’ fees from adversary Donziger [Roger Parloff] Ted Boutrous, who repped both defendants, on parallels between Chevron and Dole scandals [USA Today]

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Nick Gillespie reviews the new book by the author of The Death of Common Sense:

The Rule of Nobody updates and expands Howard’s original brief, and it helps to explain why government at all levels not only is on autopilot but on a flight path that can only end in disaster.

Every Philip Howard book is notable for its horror stories of regulation and systemic dysfunction, and reviewer Kyle Smith in the New York Post relates one I hadn’t heard, about the mammoth Deepwater Horizon spill:

When the oil rig started leaking mud and gas, the crew should have simply directed the flow over the side. Dumped it in the gulf. That would have been a small oil spill, of course, and no oil spill is a good thing. But in trying to avoid that, the crew caused a gigantic oil spill. Eleven lives were lost.

Safety protocol called for the men to aim the flow into a safety gizmo called an oil and gas separator, but that became backed up and made matters worse. Explosive gas filled the air around the rig, which finally exploded.

Then some workers who escaped in a raft almost died. Why? They were tied to the burning rig, and regulations forbade them to carry knives so they couldn’t cut themselves free.

More on the book here. Another review: Jesse Singal, Boston Globe.

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December 23 roundup

by Walter Olson on December 23, 2013

  • Metro-North train crash spurs calls for mandatory crash-prevention devices. Think twice [Steve Chapman]
  • BP sues attorney Mikal Watts [Insurance Journal] Exaggerated Gulf-spill claims as a business ethics issue [Legal NewsLine]
  • Pot-war fan: “Freedom also means the right not to be subjected to a product I consider immoral” [one of several Baltimore Sun letters to the editor in reaction to my piece on marijuana legalization, and Gregory Kline's response]
  • Aaron Powell, The Humble Case for Liberty [Libertarianism.org]
  • Allegation: lawprof borrowed a lot of his expert witness report from Wikipedia [Above the Law]
  • Frivolous “sovereign citizen” lawsuits on rise in southern Jersey [New Jersey Law Journal, earlier]
  • Star of Hitchcock avian thriller had filed legal malpractice action: “Tippi Hedren wins $1.5 million in bird-related law suit” [Telegraph]

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A big win for the oil company before a Fifth Circuit panel, fighting what it says is systematic large-scale fraud in the Gulf Coast spill economic-damage settlement. [Bloomberg News, earlier here, here, etc.]

Environment roundup

by Walter Olson on August 23, 2013

  • California officials profess surprise: fracking’s been going on for decades in their state [Coyote]
  • Taxpayers fund Long Island Soundkeeper enviro group, affiliated with RFK Jr.’s Waterkeeper network, and a Connecticut state lawmaker does rather nicely out of that [Raising Hale]
  • Backgrounder on Louisiana coastal erosion suit [New Orleans Times-Picayune] “Lawsuit Blaming Oil Companies For Wetland Loss Might As Well Blame The Plaintiffs” [Daniel Fisher, Forbes]
  • US ties for worst of 25 countries when it comes to delay in mining permits [Sharon Koss, NTU] “Number One in DataMining” [@sonodoc99]
  • “BP Is Rapidly Becoming One Giant Law Firm” [Paul Barrett, Bloomberg Business Week]
  • “Mann v. Steyn — Mann wins round one” [Adler]
  • An insider’s view of EPA and how it uses power [Brent Fewell]

The New York Times columnist responds to critics of his coverage (earlier here, here, etc.) of the BP Gulf spill claims bonanza:

Until that story [on the silicone breast implant episode], I’d always taken the liberal view of plaintiffs’ lawyers as avenging angels, righting wrongs and helping wrest compensation for people who had been harmed by greedy corporations. …

[Since then] I’ve seen mass torts where the actual plaintiffs get coupons while the lawyers reap millions. Mass torts where the connection between the product and the harm is illusory. Mass torts built on fraud (silicosis). Complex litigation settled for billions even when the government implies that consumers are responsible (Toyota sudden acceleration). I’ve also seen cases where some victims hit the jackpot with a giant jury verdict and other victims come up empty. Or where a corporation really has done harm but pays off the lawyers instead of the victims. Over the years, I’ve thought: There’s got to be a better way.

Read the whole thing [via Ted at Point of Law]

A hearing in a New Orleans courtroom gives off a tantalizing aroma of Louisiana home cooking. “But what do I know? I’m from New York.” [New York Times, earlier here and here]

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“Then the lawyers pounced.” [Joe Nocera, "Justice, Louisiana Style," New York Times, earlier]

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A “staff attorney at the Deepwater Horizon Court Supervised Settlement Program… was suspended after being accused of accepting fees from law firms while processing their clients’ claims from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.” [Bloomberg] And that’s just the start of what may be much wider problems, according to a cover story by Paul Barrett at Bloomberg Business Week. “The craziest thing about the settlement,” one lawyer wrote in a client-solicitation letter, “is that you can be compensated for losses that are UNRELATED to the spill.” [Bloomberg Business Week] Barrett’s account tells, in his own words, “how the private-claims process following BP’s (BP) 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill devolved into a plaintiffs’-lawyer feeding frenzy.” [BBW]

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Environment roundup

by Walter Olson on April 18, 2013

  • Better hope a Portland municipal arborist never takes an interest in you [Tod Kelly, League of Ordinary Gentlemen]
  • California’s Prop 65 and Gresham’s Law of Warnings (bad warnings drive out good) [David Henderson]
  • Bombshells just keep on coming in the Ecuador Lago Agrio story: “Litigation finance firm in Chevron case says it was duped by Patton Boggs” [Roger Parloff, Fortune; last Saturday's bombshell] Grounds for embarrassment at CBS “60 Minutes” [CJR]
  • Brad Plumer interview with Jonathan Adler, “What conservative environmentalism might look like” [WaPo]
  • “The light-bulb law was a matter of public policy profiteering” [Tim Carney via @amyalkon] To get ahead in D.C., a well-known conservative group adopts some concrete priorities [same]
  • “No one’s tried that. It’s not worth taking the risk.” Social-conservative, environmentalist themes have much in common [A. Barton Hinkle]
  • “BP Loses Bid to Block ‘Fictitious’ Oil Spill Claims” [Amanda Bronstad, NLJ; more]

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The cozy dealings between the state of Mississippi and well-connected private lawyers — especially the way the state comes to hire those lawyers on contingency fee to pursue high-ticket suits against outside defendants — have long furnished grist for this site. Now, opening a new chapter, Mississippi AG Jim Hood has hired former AG Michael Moore, like Hood a longtime Overlawyered favorite, to sue BP over the effects of the Transocean oil spill on the state. [AP, YallPolitics] Per YallPolitics, “Interestingly, there is no specific financial arrangement. Moore and Hood contractually agree to work it out later and have fees paid directly by BP to the as yet to be named legal team led by Moore.” When Moore hired later-disgraced Dickie Scruggs to represent Mississippi what was to develop into the most profitable litigation in history — the multistate tobacco caper — the financial details were likewise shrouded in secrecy, and it was later claimed that there was no written agreement.

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“Oil giant BP’s $20bn (£13bn) fund to compensate those hit by the Gulf of Mexico spill has been frozen, following a court order that all claimants must share the cost of the legal team leading the action over the disaster – whether or not they pursued their claim through the courts.” [Telegraph]

Campbell Robertson and John Schwartz of the New York Times find that many Vietnamese-Americans who are listed as law firm clients in the BP Transocean spill proceedings would rather not be law firm clients. “Like [Tim] Nguyen, some maintain that they never signed up with lawyers, but found that claims had been filed on their behalf (about 50 people have made formal complaints to the claims facility along these lines).” Nguyen found himself a client of lawyer Mikal Watts, “and to his further surprise, as a Louisiana shrimper rather than a Mississippi shipyard worker.” Watts, a big-league Texas tort lawyer, has reported having 43,000 spill clients, many mass-recruited from minority and poorer communities; he says he has a “signed contingency-fee contract with every client,” and that he has released clients who changed their mind about representation. “People familiar with the claims process [of one 26,000-claimant subgroup] said nearly every submission was listed as a deckhand with identical earnings.” Watts says the claims fund, administered by Kenneth Feinberg, has kept changing the documentation it asks for.