First, Get All the Lawyers: Gulf oil spill lawsuits wash up in Boise

Lawyers make their first arguments before the court



There are good lawyers, really good lawyers, and there are Russ Herman and Mark Lanier.

"You sir, are the Michael Jordan of attorneys," Lanier bellowed to Herman, making certain that everyone in the room and adjoining hallway could hear.

"You are the Superman of the Justice League," returned Herman.

One might think they were glad-handing each other following a rugby scrum, not a far-fetched analogy for last week's proceedings at the U.S. Courthouse in Boise.

But the competition was only verbal, with the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation serving as referee. Seven U.S. District Judges were handpicked by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to serve as arbiters. They were charged with determining the fate of hundreds of federal lawsuits filed in the wake of the Gulf oil spill disaster, whether the cases should be consolidated and the location for what could be the trial (or trials) of the young century.

Herman, Lanier and scores of other attorneys had packed their best Brooks Brothers suits for their brief trip to Idaho. But what it lacked in length, it certainly compensated for in courtroom drama.

"The world is watching," said attorney Steven Larson.

"The Exxon Valdez is a drop of oil in the driveway compared to the BP oil rig disaster," said Lanier.

And Herman quoted Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.

"We must not make a scarecrow of the law, setting it up to fear the birds of prey, and let it keep one shape, till custom make it their perch and not their terror."

Herman was impressive. Picture a Big Easy-version of Charles Laughton: roly-poly, salt-and-pepper hair and a tad too loud. He was the first to be heard before the MDL.

By the time the gavel came down on July 29, more than 100 days had passed since the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 men and spilled untold millions of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico. As days, weeks and months passed with continued spillage, fishermen and property owners joined the widows of the slain rig workers in wanting reparations from British Petroleum, Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron International. BP, which managed the Deepwater Horizon, has held the highest profile in the wake of the disaster. But Transocean had been the drilling company, Halliburton employed workers responsible for the safety of the operation and Cameron built the rig's blowout preventer, a critical safety device that failed to shut down the well.

Attorneys representing each of the plaintiffs were at the Boise courthouse, but they spoke least of anyone.

Attorneys Andrew Langan representing BP and David Beck representing Cameron had one message: Please hold the trials in Houston.

"All of the defendants support the Southern District of Texas as a preferred location," pleaded Langan.

"But the 15,000 claimants are from everywhere else," challenged MDL Chairman Justice John Heyburn. Langan didn't have a reply.

Heyburn represents the Western District of Kentucky, but he was more than happy to spend some time in the Gem State. Heyburn's great-great-uncle was Weldon Heyburn, Idaho's U.S. senator from 1903-1912. And the town of Heyburn is named in his honor, as is Mt. Heyburn. So Judge Heyburn took on the task of defending Idaho's honor.

Boise had been besmirched a few days earlier, when The Wall Street Journal quoted one of the attorneys (who remained anonymous): "I don't think Boise even has a five star hotel."

"Just because they don't charge $350 a night, doesn't mean it's not a five star hotel," chided Heyburn. And with that, he began a game of one-upmanship of who could say the nicest thing about the City of Trees.

"I think we should hold all the trials here. Boise is beautiful," charmed lawyer Elizabeth Cabraser.

Heyburn liked what he heard and added, "You can't get a good $100 meal here. But you can get an excellent $35 meal here."

But Boise paled in the shadow of New Orleans, Miami and Gulfport, Miss. as one-by-one, attorneys extolled the virtues of their hometowns in an effort hold the trial(s) in their neck of the woods.

"Our culture rises as a gumbo of Cajuns, Creole, French, German and Spanish," impassioned Herman. "We rise out of our myth and mystery which is now threatened. The Gulf oil spill threatens our very hope and faith, and that's why New Orleans is the best avenue for justice."

"Clearly Louisiana is the most affected state," said Ervin Gonzales, a Florida attorney. "But there may be appearances of conflict for judges and jurors."

"Mobile is the correct choice," said Robert Cunningham of Alabama. "We're the dead center of the impact of the oil spill."

"Lafayette is the compromise location," said attorney Pat Morrow. "The people of south Louisiana are passionate and vocal. They're the crabbers, shrimpers and commercial fishermen."

"I agree with every one of these attorneys," started Edward Bell, "but South Carolina is the only non-Gulf state that is affected. And we do have five star hotels."

Lanier took a different tact. "Divide the actions, but put them all in one courtroom in Houston. We must divide because the plaintiffs and issues are in concentric circles: There's witnesses to the explosion, widows of the slain and economic loss claimants. Evidence needs to be preserved for each trial, but you could have multiple judges, all holding hearings on the same day in the same building."

Each attorney had precious time to make his or her argument. Most had no more than three minutes. Some had as little as 60 seconds. As Florida lawyer Rudy Moscowitz made his way to the podium, Heyburn half-jokingly chided, "By the time you get up here your time will be up."

The MDL justices won't have such a time-crunch. They'll take until mid-August to hand down a decision.


Comments are closed.