Two prominent Texas trial attorneys have been sued as the legal fallout from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues to spiral in new directions.
In this case, Houston attorney Tammy Tran alleges that defendants John Cracken of Dallas and Bob Hilliard of Corpus Christi stole the name and identity of plaintiff Thim Nguyen, a Louisiana Vietnamese-American seafood boat owner and captain, and those of 45,500 other Vietnamese fishermen, in order to collect $2 billion in damages from BP.
The suit claims that Cracken and Hilliard used case-runners—street-level lawyers who refer clients to high-powered attorneys—to rustle up the names and identities, which were then handed over to Mikal Watts of San Antonio, a third high-profile lawyer who was working in concert with Cracken and Hilliard. The case-runners were supposedly paid $10.9 million in the alleged scheme. Watts then filed 25 suits against BP in Texas courts, allegedly unbeknownst to his clients.
(Tran has sued Watts separately; he also faces a criminal indictment in a related Mississippi-based federal case.)
The suit against Cracken and Hilliard makes for dramatic reading. Cracken and Hilliard are accused of “an arrogant presumption that this minority group of Vietnamese fishermen would be scared of these lawyers’ power and connections with judges and politicians and would bow their heads. Little did they know,” the suit goes on, “that the Vietnamese are fighters to their very bones. Since their immigration to the United States after the fall of South Vietnam, the Vietnamese fishermen have sued and fought fearlessly against Ku Klux Klan members, various mafias, corrupt government officials, global corporations and Communist governments, and many other villians. And they have won. As Congressman Al Green of Texas has put it in one of his noted speeches, “You do not ever mess with the Vietnamese fishermen.” (Emphasis original.)
Other pleadings were more of the nuts and bolts variety: emails between Watts, Cracken and Hilliard, allegedly showing that they knew their list of plaintiffs was full of, as one defendant put it, “ghosts in the wind.” And that’s not to mention a ghost in the ground and at least one four-legged critter.
E-mails between the attorneys, cited in the indictment, describe internal investigations into a client list that uncovered people who were “duped” by the case runners into signing up with Watts, or those whose files contained inaccurate or misappropriated addresses, phone numbers and Social Security numbers. One client turned out to be a dog; another died long before the spill happened.
“Another fine example of the s–t we paid for; dead 5 years ago,” Watts wrote in a March 8, 2011, e-mail. “Mikal, fraud,” Attorney 2 replied. The complaint identifies Hilliard as the respondent.
The e-mails are being taken out of context and “paint a misleading picture” of what the lawyers were discussing, Robert McDuff, Watts’s criminal defense attorney, said when the charges were unsealed last year. Any fraud involving the workers’ claims was committed by others and will be proven at Watts’s criminal trial in July, he said.
The Daily Post spoke with veteran Texas trial lawyer Dana LeJune about the case. LeJune believes it highlights some more of the problems with Texas tort reform, or “tort deform” as he brands it:
What happens often in these cases is you will have second- and third-tier lawyers who will run around and sign up people, and then they bring them to the big guy, and they get an agreement to get a piece of the contingent fee in exchange for referring them. I am not trying to make an excuse for Watts or any of these other guys, but a lot of times the big guy doesn’t know. I guarantee you that Watts did not know that the referring lawyer had signed up people who didn’t exist.
Again, I am not making excuses for anybody, but I know Mikal Watts and I know he didn’t know or he wouldn’t have done this. But see, the tort deform has made even mass tort cases like this…there’s just not as much money in them as there used to be. And so the big gun doesn’t have the time or the incentive to go and make sure the referring lawyer have done what they were supposed to have done, which is to make sure there is a live person signing the fee agreement. Not only that, but a live person who has a claim. That does not get done the way it used to get done.
Two years ago, Tran was sued by Tony Buzbee, one of the biggest of the big dogs in Texas torts. Back then Tran was referring cases to Buzbee, who alleged that Tran refused to repay a loan of almost $1 million he gave her firm in 2010. That suit was settled early last year; terms were undisclosed in court records.
Cracken and Hilliard have denied Nguyen’s accusations through their attorney, Houston’s Richard Mithoff. Speaking for himself, albeit in a statement, Hilliard denounced the claims in stronger terms: “Ms. Tran is addicted to headlines and incapable of proving this case. Her claims are false and, when her threats to sue so as to attempt to extort a multi-million dollar settlement failed, her baseless bluff was called.”
And Tran has fired back in an email to Bloomberg: “I am surprised that a lawyer of his caliber has nothing else to say but to attack me personally.” The pooch/plaintiff was unavailable for comment.