Silver Spring lawyer fights for BP oil spill victims in Louisiana
Fishing community's expenses piling up as income is halted
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina left St. Bernard Parish of Eastern Louisiana under water for nearly three weeks. In less than a month, the fishing community was swallowed up by Hurricane Rita's flooding. Five years later, the community's main source of income has been crippled by the BP Gulf oil spill.
Long-suffering fishing communities like Shell Beach, Hopedale, Delacroix and St. Bernard Parish have been supplying Louisiana's French Quarter with seafood since the late 1700's. Generations have looked forward to the spring as the busy season for shrimp, oysters and fish, but these villages have now been paralyzed indefinitely by the spill.
Silver Spring attorney Kevin Goldberg has taken five trips since early May to Louisiana to work with the fishing community in a class-action lawsuit against four companies involved in the spill.
"This spill is having a huge human impact," said Goldberg, who has seen firsthand the deterioration of many relationships in the community. "It's important to understand people's lives are being changed forever."
Goldberg's college friend Dan Robin Jr., a Louisiana-native and fellow lawyer, introduced him to the families who have watched as mortgage and boat payment bills mount. Robin's firm, Finckbeiner & Robin, is working with Goldberg to help more than 100 clients affected by the spill. Goldberg is in charge of 13 of those clients who have so far signed on to the class-action lawsuit.
"I called Dan and said, I'm sorry to hear about your old neighborhood. What are we going to do about this?' " said Goldberg, who remembers his college days at Tulane in New Orleans fishing with Robin and Robin's grandfather near St. Bernard Parish.
Robin said he didn't want to realize the significance of the spill, and it took a phone call from Goldberg to make him aware of the far-reaching effects of the disaster.
In late April, Goldberg filed a class-action lawsuit for his 13 clients against BP, Transocean, Halliburton, and Cameron International in U.S. District Court in Eastern Louisiana.
Goldberg said there is a "sick sense of anxiety" in fishing villages like St. Bernard Parish, where his clients reside and where Robin grew up. According to Goldberg, in these villages, many drop out of school to become full-time fishermen. Robin comes from a long line of fishermen and was first in his family to attend college.
"People are fighting with each other like a pack of dogs fighting over one bone," said Johnny Nunez, 55, a client of Goldberg's whose family has been fishing in Louisiana for more than 225 years. "These are people I've known my whole life. Good friends and cousins are fighting with one another over this."
"It means a lot to us. We appreciate [Goldberg] helping us," said Nunez, a charter fishermen who's patrons usually catch red fish, freckled trout and flounders.
Nunez said fishing had gotten better each year since Katrina. He was planning on another good year, but now, he doesn't know if he and his three sons will ever be able to continue this way of life.
"We wish it had never happened, but you can't go back in time," said BP Spokesman John Curry. "We're doing everything we can to minimize the impact ... and make things right for all those that have been impacted."
Goldberg, who is also keeping up with his full case load in Maryland, just flew down to Louisiana last week. The victims' compensation will be a focus of Goldberg's for the next few years. He is also representing seafood wholesalers based in Maryland who have lost revenue as a result of the spill.
"BP has offered commercial fishermen $5,000 [each], but they are playing games with how the money is being distributed," said Goldberg.
To this day, BP has not denied any of the fishermen's claims for their compensation, but that does not tell the whole story, Robin said. In order to receive the money, fishermen must produce tax information, boating licenses and other proof of ownership for their charter boats. When the paperwork is returned with questions, rather than correcting technical mistakes, many fishermen will just give up.
"The problem is that they are dealing with uneducated fishermen who don't understand bureaucracy," said Robin.
That is where Goldberg and Robin step in. They file the paperwork and facilitate payment for the fishermen's compensation. Robin says they are dealing with frustration not only from BP, but with the fishermen who have grown impatient with BP's methods.
At this point, Goldberg is not charging his clients a fee.
"It's an unprecedented situation. Right now, my focus is on trying to help my clients who are out of work because of BP's negligence," Goldberg said. "Now is not the time to consider whether it's going to be a profitable venture or not."
Goldberg says BP was evasive in informing the public of the amount of oil leaking and its plan to solve the issue. Had it been more forthcoming, especially at the onset, according to Goldberg, the government and private companies could have stepped in earlier and more actively.
Curry says BP is trying to be "as transparent as possible." After the spill, the company created the Deepwater Horizon Response website to help people understand how "complex and enormous" it is, said Curry.
BP has made attempts to employ fishermen in the clean-up of the spill, but before they can work, the fishermen must attend classes. According to Robin and Nunez, BP had an ulterior motive in the classes.
"They told us not to talk to the media, because they might get the wrong idea," said Nunez.
Curry said that is not true and that BP, "in complete agreement with Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, has always had the policy that there will be no media restriction."
After completion of 40 hours of class, the fishermen were placed on work rotation. Their names were placed in a hat, and sometimes they waited hours in a heat index of 103 to hear whether or not they got picked for that week, according to Robin. BP has since gotten rid of the hat system, Nunez said.
"Literally, fights and arguments break out [over job selection]," said Robin. "Local sheriff departments have been put in place to prevent violence."
Goldberg says the human and environmental impacts are immeasurable.
"This is a huge injustice by BP,'' said Goldberg. "...They're messing with mother nature."