The New York Times recently published an article highlighting the legal nightmare that thousands of Gulf Coast citizens have found themselves in a year after the devastating oil spill. The story features Tim Nguyen, a Mississippi shipyard worker, who tried to file a claim with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) after his hours had been cut back, only to find that a law firm he had never heard of had already filed one in his name. Despite the misleading headline, “Many Hit by Spill Now Feel Caught in Claim Process,” it’s clear Mr. Nguyen is not caught up in the “claims process.” It appears to be more likely that he, and many others, have been deliberately misled into a litigation pipeline set up by some unscrupulous personal injury lawyers to drive up legal claims and lawyer fees rather than serve justice or help victims.

The article goes on to reveal that Mr. Nguyen is one of numerous Vietnamese-American households who received an unsolicited letter from a law firm in San Antonio, which requested financial records and demanded that its recipients “not sign anything from BP or anyone else.” Some individuals who received the letters were not even impacted by the spill and speculated that perhaps everyone in the phone book may have received a letter. Now an attorney with the firm claims to represent more than 40,000 plaintiffs in a lawsuit over the Gulf spill—including Mr. Nguyen. Despite repeated attempts to extricate himself from the law firm so he can settle with GCCF, Mr. Nguyen has been stuck in legal limbo for more than six months and has yet to receive a dime.

This seemingly systematic effort to take advantage of the most vulnerable individuals in the aftermath of this disaster is appalling. It’s imperative that our state bar associations and attorneys general take note of these seemingly unscrupulous practices and investigate. And those who are found guilty of purposefully deceiving their “clients” should be held accountable for their actions. The spill is a tragedy—not an excuse for anyone to game the system for their own personal profit. What’s even more disturbing is that one of the attorneys involved in these questionable tactics sits on the on the plaintiffs’ steering committee, an exclusive group of lawyers selected by Judge Carl J. Barbier to help manage their side of the massive case. Isn’t this something Judge Barbier should question or at least be concerned about?

Why is the standard of ethical behavior for some plaintiffs’ attorneys seemingly so much lower than that of any other profession? If the New York Times published an article that exposed a group of doctors for purposefully misleading their patients into unnecessary medical treatments simply so they could reap the financial benefits, the fallout would be significant. I’d venture to say there would be public sanctions, congressional hearings, and possibly even criminal charges. Why is this situation any less significant, particularly to Judge Barbier, who has a legal and moral obligation to protect and serve the people who have been impacted by the spill—not the attorneys who seek to profit from it?


Next time you are filling up your gas tank, and feeling the pain at the pump, think about this: if the source of your gasoline is Louisiana onshore drilling, then every other time you fill your tank it comes from an oil producer that’s probably been hit by a lawsuit and may have had to pay millions of dollars to get out of it.


How’s that resonate with you while paying nearly four dollars a gallon?


Obviously oil and gas is shipped far and wide and many factors go into the price we ultimately pay at the pump, but the cost of defending against frivolous lawsuits is certainly one of them. And as far as Louisiana onshore oil is concerned, a few lawyers are probably buying yachts with the money they’re making off of these suits, while the rest of us may be deciding whether we can afford to drive to the beach this summer or have to stay home and save on the gas.


The effects of lawsuit abuse are all around us – from schools with “no hug” policies for teachers, to higher food prices, to extra medical bills for unnecessary tests and procedures that we’re subjected to simply because our physicians are afraid of getting sued. Lawsuit abuse impacts everything we do, and in Louisiana it affects our gasoline tanks, too.


Hundreds of small to mid-size Louisiana companies as well as bigger companies across the nation that are involved in exploring for and extracting onshore oil are finding that Louisiana is a bad place to do business because of what are known as “legacy” lawsuits.


These cookie-cutter suits aimed at so-called “legacy” well sites in Louisiana are supposed to help clean up the environment from damage that may have occurred years or decades ago. But the only real impact they’re having is slowing down oil production at a time when we need it most. In fact, onshore Louisiana oilrig activity is stagnant while drilling is much more active in other states such as Texas. According to the state’s independent oil producers association, this is largely due to the fact that our existing laws make Louisiana very attractive to some personal injury lawyers and a great place to play the legacy lawsuit “lottery.”


The worst part is some of the lawyers filing these suits seem to be more interested in cleaning up in court than they are in cleaning up the environment. The effect of these lawsuits – in addition to driving oil jobs and investment to other states and making a handful of Louisiana personal injury lawyers rich – is that where there are drilling-related environmental problems they are not being corrected promptly.


Legacy lawsuits are often filed in a remote parish courtroom claiming hugely exaggerated environmental damages, and the personal injury lawyer in the case seeks to avoid the state’s system for dealing with environmental oilfield claims, called Act 312. If the Act 312 process is avoided in court, then the state environmental damage experts are kept out of the process for years, and there is no reality check on the damage claims that are made by the personal injury lawyers. These lawsuits can drag on for years, delaying environmental cleanup, and then if they are settled, millions of dollars may go in the back pocket of a few lawyers and their clients, rather than fixing the so-called damage.


For example, a few years ago, the Corbello case paid out $33 million in cleanup funds, and the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled the money did not have to be spent to clean up the property damage that was the very basis of the lawsuit! Public outrage led to the creation of a fair system to address land claims, Act 312, but now a few law firms are going around the law to abuse the system and drive oil jobs to Texas and other states. Let’s hope people hear about these job-killing legacy lawsuits and that our legislators jump in to fix the issue right away.


More than a thousand companies involved in the Louisiana onshore oil business have been hit with legacy lawsuits, and these companies produce more than half of our state’s onshore crude. Hence, if Louisiana’s onshore oil exploration is the source of your gasoline, then every other tank of gas in your car is the “lawsuit abuse tankful.”


Tell your friends and neighbors: one-out-of-two “lawsuit abuse tanks of gas” is one-out-of-two too many.

Protecting our environment is an important topic for Louisianans. After all, what is a Sportsman’s Paradise without the paradise? This is what makes the delays in the cleanup of Louisiana’s “legacy” oilfield sites so disturbing.


It appears that a few personal injury lawyers are gaming the system to try and get rich from environmental oilfield claims while cleanup is delayed for years, and sometimes decades. One of the most egregious examples of this is a lawsuit filed in 2002, Corbello v Iowa Production, which led to a $33 million payout on property that still hasn’t been cleaned up.


Here is how the game works: A personal injury lawyer finds an oilfield where drilling occurred– perhaps a century ago when extraction techniques were much less sophisticated – and files a lawsuit in a rural courthouse with unrealistic cleanup claims that would cost millions of dollars. The case drags on for years and the defendants end up settling to avoid a wildly unpredictable court verdict or excessive trial costs that could put them out of business. So in the end, a few lawyers and their clients pocket millions of dollars while nothing gets done to address any actual environmental damages until years after the case has settled. This abusive environmental litigation practice almost seems to be something approaching blackmail — or in these cases, “greenmail.”


The legislature believed they were fixing this problem back in 2006 when, after much debate, they enacted a law to make sure that our state’s environmental experts and all parties involved would work together to evaluate and remediate oilfield damages. Under the law, known as Act 312, all the money spent on this process was supposed to go to cleanup and payment of reasonable legal and expert fees. But the sad reality is a handful of lawyers are still manipulating the system in an effort to pocket big settlements, rather than get our land cleaned up.


The bottom line is: Act 312 is not working as intended. Of the 250 legacy oilfield lawsuits that have been filed, virtually none of them have been resolved under Act 312 cleanup rules today. There must be a better way. The legislature failed to address the issue during this past legislative session, but we must continue working toward a solution. We cannot afford to keep sending jobs and investments to other states like Texas, where they don’t have this problem.


People who honestly want to see real environmental issues be addressed effectively should be distressed to see our well-intentioned environmental laws being abused. “Green” should be a reference to responsible environmental stewardship – not disingenuous lawsuits designed to put “green” into the bank accounts of those who seem to be abusing our legal system for personal profit.

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