NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A group of Vietnamese fishermen sued a Texas lawyer on Tuesday over allegations that he falsely claimed to represent thousands of deckhands to secure a lucrative appointment on a committee of attorneys representing victims of BP's 2010 Gulf oil spill.
The federal class-action lawsuit alleges that San Antonio-based lawyer Mikal Watts failed to file claims for at least 98 percent of the more than 44,000 clients he claimed to represent after the nation's worst offshore oil spill.
BP filed its own lawsuit against Watts in December. The company asked for a suspension of settlement payments from a $2.3 billion fund for compensating seafood-related claims.
Robert McDuff, a lawyer for Watts, said his client will defend himself against BP's "misleading attack and any similar lawsuits, including the one filed today."
"Contrary to the allegations, Mr. Watts did not commit identity theft or fraud," McDuff said in a statement. "He is a lawyer who has spent his life representing the victims of corporate wrongdoing. He devoted thousands of hours to uncovering the misdeeds of BP that led to the oil spill that disrupted the lives of many thousands of people who live in the region."
The lawyers who filed Tuesday's suit argue that many fishermen will have their settlement payments delayed while BP pursues its claims against Watts. A second round of payments under the seafood compensation program was expected in February 2014, but the suit says those payments "undoubtedly will be halted" amid BP's court challenge.
"In fact, the BP lawsuit against Mr. Watts is extremely devastating to many fishermen," the suit says. "Many fishermen have been on the verge of bankruptcy. In addition, the harvest has been really bad."
BP alleged that more than half the Social Security numbers on Watts' client list were "phantoms." Many of those numbers didn't match the named claimant, while others were incomplete numbers or belonged to dead people, the company said.
Watts resigned last year from his court-appointed position on the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee, which brokered a multibillion-dollar settlement with BP in 2012.
Tuesday's suit was filed by the law firm of Daniel Becnel, who has been an outspoken critic of the settlement. Watts' firm, Watts Guerra Craft LLP, and two of his law partners also are named as defendants in Becnel's suit, which seeks unspecified damages.
The suits filed by Becnel and BP say Watts filed a mere 648 individual crew members' claims under the settlement's seafood program. Only eight of those claims were found eligible for payments, with 17 claims still pending, the suits say.
Several plaintiffs named in Becnel's suit allege that Watts and his firm submitted claims on their behalf without their consent.
McDuff said Watts "made various filings on behalf of people to preserve their rights to pursue claims." Watts and his firm sent regular updates to people about the status of the litigation, McDuff added.
"Only a small percentage contacted him to say they had never intended to sign up with him, and he promptly stopped making submissions for those who did," McDuff said.