Tampa Bay firms get ready for big fight against Big Oil

The gulf oil spill will cost oil giant BP and maybe others like Deepwater Horizon rig owner Transocean and Halliburton a barrelful of bucks in cleanup expenses. But it may be the coming wave of lawsuits from businesses and individuals claiming they were harmed by the impact of the spill that really sticks it to these oil industry wallets.

Some Tampa Bay firms are gearing up for the Big Fight against Big Oil, which could spawn a legal bonanza for many years should the oil spill prove a long-term disaster.

Just ask Dewey Destin, a lifelong Florida Panhandle resident of Okaloosa County. He owns waterfront property on Joe's Bayou near Choctawhatchee Bay. He's a member of the pioneer family after whom the gulf-front city of Destin is named, and he serves on the Destin City Council.

He's also a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed by Tampa's Merlin Law Group and other firms against BP, Transocean, Halliburton and other companies involved in the spill.

The lawsuit covers the waterfront by citing the oil spill's likely environmental damage, the hazard of exposure to humans and the significant losses sustained by business and property values from the spill's publicity.

The suit not only seeks damages but asks for up-front financial help to minimize any fouling of the area by the oil spill. The lawsuit states:

"The oil slick is an economic catastrophe for the gulf states. Businesses and individuals on the gulf coast … face the permanent loss of their livelihoods. Given the permanent damage that the oil slick is doing to the tourism industry, and the resulting stigma attached to the area, this loss will be difficult or impossible to recover."

Other Tampa Bay law firms are involved or exploring how to get a slice of a litigation pie.

Carlton Fields, one of Tampa Bay's larger law firms, is creating an oil spill team co-led by attorney Luis Prats.

Still other law firms are considering an old standby: suing BP on behalf of shareholders because the stock price fell after news of the spill.

In Clearwater, the Perenich law firm website talks about the health risks to people as the oil spill creeps closer to shore. "We understand the responsibility that is demanded of others to create a safe society for ourselves and our family, and can assist you in instances where a corporation puts you and your health at risk," the site states.

Terence Perenich, a Clearwater native, says his firm is monitoring the oil spill, mostly from a legal vantage point of safety regulations. Like the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, a big question to answer is: How much negligence occurred in the gulf spill?

Punishing the oil industry isn't just about money. It's about sending a message that it must be more careful and take stronger precautions when pursuing such high-risk projects as deepwater drilling.

"I do not want to see any harm come to this state, or any state," Perenich says. "But at the same time, we need to do something about it."

No argument there. And, when the investigations are over, blame may also extend to lax federal supervision of drilling by the Minerals Management Service, part of the Department of the Interior.

Either way, hopefully we'll have reduced the odds of another disaster of such magnitude.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay firms get ready for big fight against Big Oil 05/24/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 24, 2010 9:24pm]

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