Courts

In BP Oil Spill Suit, Plaintiffs' Attorneys Turn on Each Other


Just when you thought the BP (BP) oil spill litigation couldn’t get any weirder or more vicious, two titans of the plaintiffs’ bar have gone to war—against each other. It’s Godzilla vs. King Kong, as Danny Becnel of Louisiana sues Mikal Watts of Texas.

Becnel prefers to call himself The King of Torts. My Bloomberg Businessweek colleague Ken Wells wrote a crackerjack profile of him when Becnel materialized among the first group of mass-injury lawyers to file suit on behalf of victims of the April 2010 BP oil spill off the Louisiana coast. Becnel, the article noted, ”has represented plaintiffs in some of the highest-profile class actions in American history, from fen-phen diet pills and Big Tobacco to Dow Corning breast implants and the recent Toyota (TM) sudden-acceleration cases.”

Watts, if anything, has an even bigger national profile than Becnel. Watts, too, has faced off against BP in the wake of the massive spill, filing some 40,000 claims on behalf of deckhands and others. In December, BP punched back, filing an unusual civil-fraud suit accusing the San Antonio attorney of padding his docket with thousands of “phantom” clients who didn’t fit his description of them, or didn’t exist at all.

Now, in a suit filed in federal court in New Orleans, Becnel has sought class-action status for a group of Vietnamese American fishermen and business owners, some of whom say they’re among those whose names Watts exploited without authorization to bulk up his client rolls. From the complaint:

“Mr. Watts and [his law firm, Watts Guerra] were involved in the misappropriation of identities of many thousands of Gulf Coast Vietnamese-Americans in order to increase his chances of obtaining a position on the Deepwater Horizon Plaintiffs Steering Committee for their own financial gain.”

Watts resigned from the influential steering committee last year in the wake of reports that federal agents had searched his offices in connection with the phantom-claims scandal. The federal criminal investigation is continuing.

Watts, a major fundraiser for President Barack Obama, has denied any wrongdoing. In a statement reported by the Associated Press, an attorney representing him said Watts merely tried to file legitimate claims as swiftly as possible. “Mr. Watts made various filings on behalf of people to preserve their rights to pursue claims,” Watts’s attorney, Robert McDuff, said. “All actions taken were in good faith that legitimate claims were being filed for real people who had been hurt by BP’s gross negligence.”

Facing Becnel or BP one at a time would be challenging enough. A double-team does not bode well for any lawyer, not even Watts.

Barrett_190
Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador.

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