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Lawyers on the prowl after US oil spill

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Armies of lawyers are turning their sights to the massive oil slick spreading across the Gulf of Mexico, eagerly seeking damages from the companies at the center of the disaster.

Lawyers who faced a massive onslaught of demands after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005 are now flooded with calls from oil workers and local fishermen eager to receive compensation for their losses. Judy Guice, an attorney based in Biloxi, Mississippi, said the oil spill “has the potential to dwarf Katrina” in terms of the number of lawsuits.

“Katrina was a natural disaster. I had to deal with clients angry at their insurance companies. But the oil spill is a man-made disaster.” British energy giant BP, in trying to stave off the worst US environmental disaster since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, is also facing an uphill PR battle to regain its environmentally friendly image, already tarnished by a 1995 explosion at a Texas refinery that left 15 people dead.
Transocean Ltd, which owns the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform leased to BP, is also the target of lawsuits, along with Halliburton, which was responsible for cementing the well to stabilize its walls. The rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers before it sank two days later. Over 210,000 gallons of oil are now spewing out of the ruptured well each day.

“People do not necessarily want to sue BP right away,” said lawyer James Gardner, who says he is swamped with requests from prospective clients ranging from fishermen to a barber who claimed he might lose customers because people affected by the disaster could no longer afford a haircut.

Gardner practices at three locations in Mississippi. Early this week, he and his associates took out ads in local media urging fishermen, boat owners and restaurant owners to call his office for a free consultation. Clyde Gunn, another attorney, says he was among the first to sue BP and other companies working on the rig.

The class action lawsuit, of which AFP obtained a copy, was dated April 30, eight days after the platform capsized. A fisherman, a boat charter worker and three seafood firms in Mississippi are attacking BP and Transocean for “negligence” and say they have suffered an undetermined amount of monetary losses as a consequence of the blast.

According to the lawyers contacted by AFP, at least 65 lawsuits have been filed against BP and its associates since the explosion. BP declined to confirm or comment. The company has said it would pay all “legitimate” claims. “It’s going to take years before those lawsuits get settled,” said Gunn, who recommended his clients to gather bills, tax filings and other documents to determine their losses compared to recent years.

Biloxi boat rental business owner Jim Young said he was considering filing his own complaints against the culprits. “Until July, I had 65 reservations” he said were worth about 30,000 dollars. “But right now, it doesn’t look good at all.”

In order to compensate his losses, Young decided to provide BP access to his 50-foot (15-meter) boat to BP to help in the cleanup effort as part of the company’s “Vessels of Opportunity” program employing fishermen to help protect the fragile gulf coastline. “They pay 2,000 dollars a day,” Young said, warning that “if they don’t call me, I’ll sue them. BP is going to owe a lot of money.”

BILOXI, Mississippi, May 9 (AFP)