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Federal oil spill lawsuits could land in Tampa

Documenting claims needs careful prep

June 21, 2010 | Jane Meinhardt, Tampa Bay Business Journal

TAMPA — As a judicial panel considers consolidating in one location the nearly 225 federal lawsuits against BP for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, an attorney for a suing plaintiff has requested Tampa be made the legal vortex.

The Tampa Division of the Middle District of Florida would be the best federal court location for the multitude of Deepwater Horizon spill-related proceedings from cases filed in other jurisdictions because of its “center of gravity” location and the accessibility provided by Tampa International Airport, according to a brief filed by Spiro Verras, the attorney for Narcosis Scuba Center in Tarpon Springs.

If the panel decides to consolidate and transfer federal actions to Tampa federal court, the area would become ground zero for a huge entourage of lawyers, legal assistants, plaintiffs, environmentalists, oil industry experts, BP representatives and many others, providing a major boost to businesses — some of which are affected by the oil spill.

The economic impact of the spill will be more severe in Florida because the state’s entire coastline is lined with hotels, marinas, resorts and other businesses, and Tampa is the center of the state, the brief states.

Verras also contends Tampa federal court has the resources for speedy resolution of proceedings, and the area is a convenient and cost-efficient location. Verras noted in his brief that Hillsborough County has 21,000 hotel rooms and there’s another 35,000 rooms in Pinellas County and plenty of amenities for such an influx of visitors.

Next hearing: Idaho

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation plans a hearing on consolidation on July 29 in Boise, Idaho

“We intend to be at the hearing in Boise,” said Verras, one of three lawyers at the Bilirakis Law Group in Holiday. “It’s sort of a strange pleading, but we felt someone in this area needs to have a voice in the proceedings and be part of the consideration. It’s an enormously complicated situation.”

BP has filed a motion to transfer cases to Houston because that is where its business is headquartered. Verras’ brief quotes Wikipedia in observing that Houston is considered the Oil Capital of the World.

Narcosis Scuba “respectfully avers that Houston would be an inappropriate forum” for the claims of people harmed by the industry, the brief states.

The law firm has six other recent lawsuits against BP in Tampa federal court, representing complaints from five area businesses and a Clearwater couple who own waterfront property. The complaints seek class certification.

In addition to Narcosis Scuba, the businesses include a Clearwater Beach hotel and restaurant, a commercial fishing broker, a tourist-based retail shop and a charter vessel.

“Each represents a different category of claims,” Verras said. “It’s difficult because where does the damage end? The whole situation is unprecedented.”

Prep tips for impacted businesses

While there probably is no question about establishing BP’s liability, quantifying damages is the heavy lifting for businesses.

Verras encourages clients to maintain good records of current business activities, such as cancellations, and financial information that can be compared with past records. The law firm has a team of economists to help clients.

Some damage may be hard to document, particularly since 2009 was a down year for many businesses, said Linwood Gilbert, president of Urban Realty Solutions in Tampa. He is an appraiser who specializes in waterfront businesses and development, especially marinas.

While Gilbert has not yet been asked to appraise property or a business to determine whether the oil spill has affected value, he too is telling clients to document occupancy, sales, advance bookings, prices, number of customers and expenses.

Many businesses were expecting an upward trend this spring to combat downward trends last year.

“The problem becomes how do you separate a general decline in business from the effects of the oil spill,” Gilbert said. “You have to segregate what might have been with what it is. Every one of these is an onion that has to be peeled back. It can be done. It will just take a while.”

T. Truett Gardner, partner at Gardner Brewer Martinez-Monfort in Tampa, said some cases of business damage are clear-cut while others are harder to document.

“A pest control company that is a client and works for hotels and condos has lost so much business that he may lay off people,” Gardner said. “Then the people laid off have a claim, too.”

jmeinhardt@bizjournals.com | 727.224.2299

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