Local attorneys discuss their role in the epic partial settlement with BP.
By Heather Miller
Had the historic, massive litigation of the BP oil spill gone to trial as scheduled on Feb. 27, Lafayette attorney Jim Roy would have given one of the opening statements on behalf of hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs who were impacted by one of the worst environmental disasters in recent history.
Roy never made his opening statements, as the trial of the century was ultimately delayed in lieu of a monumental partial settlement that BP estimates is worth about $7.8 billion. But for the past year and a half, Roy has devoted his time almost exclusively to the BP oil spill litigation, a case that involved roughly 300 lawyers and required the full-time help of several attorneys from Roy’s office.
“Actually, three days before the trial, I’d have taken bets that we were going to start the trial,” Roy says. “We had a number of key people. I was just one cog in the machine.”
Six months after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 men and sent millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, the 35-year veteran maritime personal injury lawyer with Domengeaux, Wright, Roy and Edwards was thrust into a key role of the BP aftermath. When a federal judge in New Orleans consolidated all BP claims into one case, the judge appointed Roy to serve with New Orleans attorney Stephen Herman as co-liaison counsel to the plaintiffs’ steering committee of 12-14 lawyers.
“My firm represents some of the individual claims, but the work that I personally and most of the members of my firm have been involved in is work done for the common benefit of all people with claims,” Roy says. “It doesn’t mean I represent them. It means that the plaintiff steering committee, Mr. Herman and myself have an obligation to try and do the most good for the greatest number of people. That’s what that effort is. It’s a subtle distinction from actually representing clients, because we’re doing our work in a court-appointed role to get common discovery done for all clients, for everybody.”
The countless human resources and support staff involved in the process prompted the leasing of an entire floor of a New Orleans building, roughly 16,000 square feet of office space that was full within a few months.
“We basically had to create a new law firm with about 300 lawyers and paralegals and technical support staff, get the IT part of it up and running within 30 days, and start operating seamlessly as a functioning law firm within four to six weeks,” Roy says. “Those were very interesting times. For any lawyer, it’s the biggest litigation anybody’s ever worked on. It’s truly time consuming; there’s just so much going on. I live in New Orleans more than I do here, and that’s been a sad reality ever since the fall of 2010 when we were appointed to the positions.”
“Working with guys who I’ve read about, that you hear about through the bar, actually getting to meet them and work with them was certainly a first, hopefully not a one-time experience.”
— Attorney Tommy Thomassie IV
Jim Roy’s son, John, a lawyer at Domengeaux, Wright, Roy and Edwards a few years out of law school, began assisting with BP work shortly after his father was assigned to the case. By February of 2011, John, too, had become an adopted New Orleans resident and full-time staffer on the case.
“I was completely naive walking into it,” John says. “The scope of everything, the bigness factor of the case is what impressed everybody, young and old, regardless of how many years of experience they had. No one had ever contemplated anything this big, and I think they had to adjust to that.
“We could talk for hours about cool things about the case,” John continues. “But working with dad, being a part of the trial team, being involved in trial team meetings, in law school you contemplate what it would be like to be involved in a strategy session for something like that. Then to sit in a room with all these guys that have years and years of experience under their belts. It was really cool for us, not something a lot of young attorneys get to experience. One of the coolest things is being involved with this caliber of attorneys, seeing how they work. It’s been eye opening for all of us.”
Jim Roy points out that an “interesting Lafayette connection” exists among the distinguished lawyers from all over the country who were involved in the case. As Roy continues work on other factors in the case, or “very important milestones yet to be had,” Lafayette lawyer Patrick Juneau has been appointed to administer the partial settlement that Roy and the other attorneys worked so long to reach. Juneau is to the court settlement what Kenneth Feinberg was to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. Roy also notes that Lafayette attorney Michael Lemoine of Jones Walker and Edwin Preis of Preis and Roy served on the defense side of the case.
Tommy Thomassie IV, another young lawyer at Domengeaux, Wright, Roy and Edwards, would have never believed a couple of years ago that he, too, would end up living in New Orleans and dedicating his entire work week to the BP litigation.
“I didn’t get involved until late July of last year; by that time the structure had already been set up so that it was going to be moving on an exceptionally fast track,” Thomassie says. “Keeping up with it was challenging. Working with guys who I’ve read about, that you hear about through the bar, actually getting to meet them and work with them was certainly a first, hopefully not a one-time experience.”
With the partial settlement behind them, which Roy says is “basically a blank check that BP will have to write depending on the number of claims that come forward,” the next phase will be processing punitive claims against Deepwater Horizon owner Transocean and Halliburton, a contractor on the rig when it exploded. Also excluded from the historic BP settlement are the claims from oil and gas supply companies that were negatively impacted by the drilling moratorium following the spill.
“It’s still defying expectations; there’s still a lot of work to be done,” John says.
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