CLEARWATER — Monique Dever is scared. Her business, seafood from the gulf, is in great peril.
As the office manager for Ward's Seafood off Belleair Road, she has seen the almost daily e-mail alerts warning of new restrictions on fishing due to BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and she has heard from concerned customers.
So when she heard a group of high-powered lawyers were holding a seminar on how to fight back, she had to go.
In the Hyatt Regency on Clearwater Beach on Thursday evening, the lawyers, Dever said, did not disappoint.
They came from firms that have gotten payouts in the hundreds of millions from big corporations.
Stuart Smith was there. His firm in New Orleans won a $1.06 billion verdict against Exxon Mobil in 2002 over contaminated land.
So was Bob McKee, whose Fort Lauderdale firm was among those to take on DuPont over its tainted fungicide Benlate, winning hundreds of millions in judgments for farms and shrimp fishermen.
These attorneys, and representatives from several other firms, have formed a coalition and launched a website, www.gulfoil disasterrecovery.com, to begin a process that may last a decade or more: suing the pants off of BP, Halliburton and every other firm responsible for damaging the livelihoods of the thousands affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
McKee, who said Clearwater was the seventh stop on the coalition's tour of cities around the gulf, began with a line he said many people affected by the oil cling to.
"They'll pay you if you have a legitimate claim."
He said if past experience is any indication, the line is nothing but PR. He offered a different interpretation.
"If you can kick their tail at trial, they'll pay you. That's what I think it means," he said.
At points, there was applause from the three dozen who attended.
The lawyers brought in a scientist, William Sawyer, to speak about the untold and unknown dangers of toxins that have been released.
They emphasized that even if a beach is slathered in oil, unless that oil can be chemically matched to samples taken from the Deepwater Horizon spill site, BP's lawyers would rip the owner's case to shreds.
They touted internal memos they claim came from BP, revealing that corners were cut in the process of drilling the exploratory well that went so wrong.
Document everything, they said. Dated photos. Tax returns. Sales receipts. That is key.
And last: In order to get more than the "meager pittances" BP is doling out now, and to get to the larger settlements for perhaps years of lost revenue, they needed good representation.
They did not directly make a sales pitch for themselves, but encouraged those with possible damage to lawyer up — otherwise, they suggested, it will be hard.
"The victim has the burden of proof. BP knows that. How many of you have a deep sea laboratory ship?" McKee said, emphasizing that at trial, having good scientists on retainer will make a big difference.
And of course, the benefit for those damaged: "You're allowed to be made whole again. Every American has that right."
Explaining the lawyers' interest, Smith said: "We're looking for people who have sustained significant economic harm," which means contingency fees of up to 50 percent.
Speaking of the potential for the issue to be fought over for years, one local lawyer in attendance quipped, "I'm encouraging my 2-year-old grandson to go to law school."