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?