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May 1, 2010

(Bloomberg) by Margaret Cronin Fisk

BP Plc and Transocean Ltd. face at least 36 lawsuits, including group cases with potentially thousands of plaintiffs, over environmental damage and personal injuries caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

At least 31 proposed class-action suits have been filed in courthouses from Texas to Florida. Commercial fishermen, shrimpers, charter-boat operators and beachfront-property owners asked to represent anyone whose livelihood depends on coastal waters imperiled by the drifting oil. At least 24 cases were filed yesterday.

BP has the primary liability for damage caused by the spill, said Keith Hall, an attorney in New Orleans, who isn’t involved in the litigation. He cited a U.S. law passed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill at Alaska in 1989.

“Under the Oil Pollution Act, the fact that it was BP’s oil is enough,” said Hall, of Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann LLC. Plaintiffs “don’t have to show they were negligent or grossly negligent,” he said.

Transocean’s spokesman Guy Cantwell and BP’s Daren Beaudo didn’t respond to requests for comment on the rapid rise in lawsuits. Both men said previously it was against company policy to comment on pending litigation.

Lawsuits also name Cameron International Corp., which provided blowout-prevention equipment, and Halliburton Energy Services Inc., which was involved in cementing the well.

Scott Amann, a spokesman for Houston-based Cameron, the second-largest U.S. maker of oilfield equipment behind National Oilwell Varco Inc., said the company doesn’t comment on litigation.

Cathy Mann, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Halliburton, the second-largest oilfield contractor behind Schlumberger Ltd., said the company is cooperating with investigations into the accident. She said “it is premature and irresponsible to speculate on any specific causal issues.”

The suits are multiplying as the companies struggle to cap a damaged undersea well leaking 5,000 barrels of crude oil a day since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20. The edge of the spill has begun washing ashore in Louisiana and may reach Florida’s coast early next week.

“The litigation is spreading faster than the slick,” said Houston-based plaintiffs’ attorney Tommy Fibich in an interview. “BP may be as endangered as the brown pelican. This litigation will dwarf other corporate catastrophes.”

‘Tremendous Disaster’
“There are big losses already,” Robert Cunningham, a Mobile, Alabama, lawyer representing condominium owners and commercial fishermen, said yesterday in a phone interview. “The condo owners are having cancellations right and left over concerns about fouled beaches. It’s going to be a tremendous disaster if it comes ashore.”

“If you look at a satellite photo of the slick, it already extends from due south of New Orleans to due south of Pensacola, Florida,” said Michael G. Stag, a lawyer for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which sued yesterday. The group’s lawsuit asks the federal court in New Orleans to order BP and other defendants to remove oil, test Louisiana waters and re- seed oyster habitats.

Families of 11 of the 28 crew members killed or injured in the Deepwater Horizon explosion have sued companies including London-based BP and Geneva-based Transocean, the world’s largest offshore oil driller. Lawyers for two workers in a state-court lawsuit in Houston acquired a temporary restraining order requiring the companies to preserve evidence related to the explosion.

Combined Lawsuits
The cases probably will be combined in a single court for evidence-gathering and pretrial decisions, according to Stag. They may be returned to their home states for trial or settled.
Jonathan Andry, a lawyer for a Louisiana fisherman who is suing, cited statistics from the state’s wildlife and fisheries agency that the state supplies about 25 percent of the continental U.S.’s seafood.

The area threatened by the spill is especially important for its abundance of shrimp, oysters, red snapper and grouper, according to attorney Brad Bradford, who sued on behalf of fisherman John Harris in federal court in Pensacola, Florida.

Thick, Smelly Air
Stag, whose law office is in downtown New Orleans, said the air was thick with the acrid smell of burning oil, as the U.S. Coast Guard tried to burn off some of the slick before it reached land.

“The economic impact of the spill will extend far beyond marine wildlife and the fishing industry, harming coastal property owners, the tourism industry and a myriad of others who supply them with goods and services,” Bradford said in court papers.

Alabama and Florida beachfront property owners filed at least eight suits claiming the spill will damage rental income. The area’s “sugar sand” beaches regularly appear on rankings of the world’s top white-sand beaches.

The plaintiffs include Peter Burke, an Alabaman who owns rental properties on the Gulf coast.
“Mr. Burke has already seen an impact on his ability to rent his properties because of the anticipated landfall of thousands of gallons of crude oil,” John E. Norris, one of the property owners’ lawyers, said in court papers.

“It looks like this will be a major piece of litigation for a lot of years if it hits as predicted,” said attorney Cunningham, whose firm has filed five proposed class-action suits. Yesterday’s cases include Fishtrap Charters LLC v. Transocean Holdings, 1:10-cv-00202, and Fort Morgan Sales, Rentals & Development v. Transocean Holdings, 1:10-cv-00203, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Alabama (Mobile).

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