O’Neill Considering Litigating BP Gulf Spill
21 Corporate Crime Reporter 24, May 21, 2010

Brian O’Neill has been there.

Done that.

For 21 years.

O’Neill was the trial lawyer in charge of litigating the Exxon Valdez case.

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker hit Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska – spilling 11 million gallons of crude.

O’Neill, a partner at Faegre & Benson in Minneapolis, has been litigating the case ever since.

That would be 21 years.

And now, those fishermen and others damaged by the oil spill in the Gulf want O’Neill to litigate their cases against BP.

O’Neill is not jumping up and down with joy.

“I’m thinking about it,” O’Neill told Corporate Crime Reporter last week. “But I’m almost 63.”

“Taking the BP case will keep me from seeing the Taj Mahal and all of the places in the world that I would like to see. So, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Is it a resources decision, or a personal decision?

“It’s a personal decision,” O’Neill says without hesitation. “This is emotionally and financially a very risky thing to do. It’s the thing that divorces are made of.”

Has your family weighed in on this?

“Yes. But my family has been an oil spill family. My wife and I married twenty years ago. And our kids were in Alaska. Now they are back in Minneapolis.”

Do they want to move to Louisiana?

“No, they don’t want to move to Louisiana. They would not move to Louisiana.”

O’Neill says he would join the litigation against BP if he decided he could make a difference.

He’s one of the few lawyers with the institutional knowledge to bring such a case.

“I’m one of the few people alive who knows how to do this,” O’Neill says.

There are other firms with the resources and expertise to do it.

O’Neill mentions two – Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle and Dickstein Shapiro Morin in Washington, D.C.

“But it’s awfully hard for a one or two person law firm to take their practice off line for one or two years with no hope of getting paid for five or ten, or twenty or twenty-one years.”

“That’s a hard thing to do. It’s a hard thing to do for a big firm.”

When will you make you decision on this?

“I would hope sooner rather than later.”

Which way are you leaning?

“I just don’t know.”

There were originally 62 law firms involved in the Exxon Valdez litigation.

“And over the years, a lot of them went by the boards. There were five or six in the end that did most of the work and contributed most of the money. You are talking $200 million in time and $30 million in cash.”

What was the cash used for?

“Paying for experts, paying for exhibits, paying for copying, paying for travel, paying for places to live in Alaska.”

He holds out little hope for effective criminal prosecution in the BP case.

There was a criminal prosecution of Exxon, but it was for minor offenses.

“Exxon pled guilty to some minor violations – the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Clean Water Act, a couple of other things – but they were minor,” O’Neill says.

What’s your take on criminal prosecutions in these kinds of cases?

“Nothing serious happens,” O’Neill says.

Could it have been different on the criminal side with Exxon?

“Not with that administration. Those were the Dan Quayle years. They didn’t have the stomach for it.”

“The federal government and the state of Alaska settled the claims against Exxon for a relatively modest amount because they didn’t think they could go to war against Exxon.”

“It would have been too expensive, too time and personnel consuming.”

“When the deal was proposed, that was a stated reason that they weren’t going to go to war with them.”

O’Neill says criminal prosecution in oil spill cases is “almost non-existent.”

“That’s shocking. Somebody who steals from one person can go to jail for an awful long amount of time.”

“But if you steal the jobs from in our case 32,000 people – nobody goes to jail at all.”

“So, it’s shocking. But I don’t see it happening.”

“I don’t think that there is ever going to be a strong federal or state criminal presence in any of these oil spill cases.”

“Oil is strategically too important. Oil trumps fishing. Oil trumps safety. And that’s just a fact of life.”

“I was watching the movie Dune the other night. And it’s same kind of deal. Whoever controls the spice controls the universe.”

Do you expect in the BP case there will be a stronger federal criminal response from this administration?

“No. The cozy relationship between the big oil companies and the federal government and many of the states is pretty much the same whether it is Republicans or Democrats.”

[For a complete transcript of the Interview with Brian O'Neill, see 21 Corporate Crime Reporter 24, May 24, 2010, print edition only.]


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