Rather than cooling off, the liability fires from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill are heating up and spreading. Now a Marin County (Calif.) financier has poured lighter fluid on the blaze in the form of $50 million meant to encourage the filing of more claims against the British energy giant.
LawFinance Group, a 20-year-old provider of capital for litigation, announced the availability of the $50 million “funding facility” on Nov. 21. In an interview yesterday, LawFinance Chief Executive Alan Zimmerman said the firm closed $9 million in financings during Thanksgiving week alone, even with time off for turkey and stuffing. “There’s so much demand in the gulf region, I think we’ll be going back and raising more money—probably up to $100 million,” Zimmerman added. He said the financing would allow plaintiffs’ attorneys to keep their small law firms afloat while they joust with BP over disputed claims.
This is not good news for BP (BP). The company has already paid out more than $25 billion for cleanup and damage claims following the April 2010 blowout that killed 11 rig workers and spewed millions of barrels of oil off the coast of Louisiana.
A 2012 settlement of business claims that BP estimated would cost about $7.8 billion has erupted in renewed hostilities. The company has objected in court filings and media advertisements alleging that plaintiffs’ attorneys have taken advantage of that settlement to file exaggerated and “fictions” claims. The federal judge supervising the pact, in turn, has accused BP of reneging on its agreement, and the whole mess is now pending before the federal appeals court in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, the same federal trial judge, Carl Barbier, also of New Orleans, is presiding over a separate environmental lawsuit in which the federal government seeks up to $17 billion in additional damages from BP.
Zimmerman, who employs 16 people in San Rafael, Calif., 2,300 miles from the gulf, sees an opportunity. “From the outside looking in,” he said, “it appears as though BP changed its attitude toward paying claims after the Justice Department settled the criminal case against BP.” The company agreed last year to pay $4 billion as part of a plea deal involving 14 criminal counts—11 of them for felony manslaughter. BP executives say they changed strategy when they realized earlier this year that attempts at conciliation had led to exploitation and a feeding frenzy by plaintiffs’ lawyers.
“While we can’t stop BP from running full-page ads disparaging the legal profession, our capital will go a long way to level the playing field,” Zimmerman told me. “Lawyers should also view delays as an opportunity to reach more claimants.” LawFinance estimated that as of mid-October, fewer than 10,000 of nearly 60,000 potential business-loss claims filed have been paid.
Well established in Britain, litigation finance by third-party funders is a controversial, spreading phenomenon in the U.S. Since 1994, Zimmerman said, LawFinance Group has advanced more than $300 million in thousands of cases involving personal injury, contract disputes, workplace rancor, intellectual property, and real estate. “We know how to estimate the risks and determine when cases are likely to pay off,” Zimmerman said.
UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans on Monday ordered the suspension of certain payments under the business-losses settlement. The appellate court acted in response to an emergency request by BP, seeking an injunction to halt payments to claimants whose losses were not traceable to the 2010 oil spill. The Fifth Circuit instructed Judge Barbier to take a closer look at how the settlement is being implemented and fashion an appropriate injunction.