Posted Aug 2, 2010 6:00 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss
A group of plaintiffs’ law firms in the southeast have formed an Oil Spill Legal Alliance that is offering to help victims of the BP spill file claims without charge.
Alliance members will be available, however, to represent oil spill victims who opt to litigate on a contingency basis or whose claims are denied, according to the group’s website.
The group has posted a toll-free number and a code of conduct in which alliance members pledge to file claims for free and to abide by state bar rules, including rules governing attorney fees in litigated claims.
Ed Bell of the 12-lawyer Bell Legal Group in Georgetown, S.C., conceived of and founded the alliance. “So many of these people need help in just understanding the process,” he tells the ABA Journal. “We believe that we as lawyers should reach out and help them and not charge them.”
The website has been operating for just two weeks or so, and already Bell’s law firm has fielded several thousand calls that are forwarded to alliance members serving the callers’ areas. Paralegals are being trained to help the claimants, he says, but a lawyer will look over each form before it is filed.
The website has photos of an oil slick and a tar-covered bird, and news stories on the spill. It includes a list of people and groups who may be adversely affected by the spill, including cruise ship workers, amusement park workers, and condo associations.
Asked what percentage of callers are likely to end up as contingency clients, Bell replies, “We hope we can help them all without having to charge them.” But he says some of the larger claims being filed “aren’t being handled very efficiently” and some who suffered losses may be better served by litigation.
Bell cites an example. His firm represents independent taxing bodies that are collecting less money because the spill has put people out of work and eroded the tax base. “We think we can help,” he says, “but it’s not going to happen in the fund.”
The ABA Journal asked Bell whether there could be an incentive to file badly done claims in hopes that rejection will lead to a contingency fee client. “I guess if you were unscrupulous that might be true, but I can’t imagine if you are an honest attorney that there could be conflict,” he says. “I hadn’t thought of it being a conflict because we hadn’t thought of doing anything but the best.”