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Lawyers compete for big payoff, control in BP case

MIAMI — More than 100 lawyers are battling for the biggest chunks of what is likely to be a multibillion-dollar settlement for Gulf of Mexico oil spill victims, jockeying for spots on the elite team that will control the plaintiffs' cases.

A judge will pick 12 to 15 lawyers to take the lead in lawsuits against BP PLC and other companies filed by thousands of fishermen, restaurateurs, hotel operators, property owners and many others over the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Competition is fierce: The candidates include a former Cabinet secretary and the lawyer who represented Al Gore in the 2000 presidential recount case. The team could get up to 15 percent of a multibillion-dollar settlement from more than 300 lawsuits that have been consolidated in New Orleans federal court. And that's on top of the typical 30 percent fee that lawyers charge their individual clients.

"This is a very lucrative position," said Brian Fitzpatrick, a Vanderbilt University law professor who has studied how attorney fees work. "You not only control the case but you get a big percentage off the top. This will attract all the big fish."

Applications from 112 lawyers have been filed with U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who will announce his choices in the coming weeks. Top trial lawyers from around the nation are represented, many veterans of similar high-profile cases such as Toyota's sudden acceleration problems and the troubled painkiller Vioxx.

Modesty is not the calling card of these attorneys, some of whom jet around on private aircraft. A typical application comes from South Carolina lawyer Ronald L. Motley, whose 70-attorney Motley Rice firm is one of the nation's largest. ''Throughout his career and to this day, Motley has developed and tried complex toxic tort cases against powerful adverse interests," Motley's application says, adding that he has "extensive courtroom and trial experience as a tireless advocate for plaintiffs."

Mike Espy, a former Mississippi congressman who was agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, is seeking one of the positions. So are five attorneys who sued BP over the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, including Houston's Mark Lanier. Two Vietnamese-American lawyers want to represent fishermen of Vietnamese descent.

Derriel McCorvey, who is black, wants to represent African-American and other minority clients. He also noted that he was an All-Southeastern Conference defensive back at Louisiana State University.

David Boies points to his 40 years of legal work, including the recount case for Gore, numerous major class action lawsuits and representation of the Justice Department in the antitrust case against Microsoft.

A team is needed to oversee the lawsuits because it would be impossible to have hundreds of lawyers actively involved in cases that have been consolidated in the name of efficiency. Once the panel is chosen, the attorneys will make nearly every strategic decision on behalf of the people who are suing BP.

Lawyers compete for big payoff, control in BP case 10/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 8, 2010 12:02am]
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