Update: On February 5, 165th District Judge Elizabeth Ray set aside an order to dismiss without prejudice Jamal Pittman v. Hercules Offshore, Inc. Neither Anthony Buzbee, Pittman’s initial counsel, nor Berney Strauss, who represents Pittman now, returned a call at press time about this development.
A seaman who says he was hurt on an offshore drilling vessel has swapped out his lawyers, dismissed his state court suit and filed a federal suit. But his first set of lawyers — Houston plaintiffs Anthony G. Buzbee and the Buzbee Law Firm — appear none too happy. They had filed a motion to intervene in the state court suit, seeking to bring claims against the seaman and his new lawyer.
Meanwhile, the vessel owner’s defense attorney says he will sit back and watch the dispute among Buzbee, the seaman and the new plaintiffs lawyer play out.
"I’m kind of just sitting back and letting them fight over whatever they think they are fighting over. We have no position as to how this comes out," says Robert Vining, a partner in Houston’s LeBlanc Bland who represents Hercules Offshore, the defendant in the now-dismissed state court suit and federal suit. Hercules Offshore, owner of the offshore drilling vessel where Pittman claims he was injured, has denied Pittman’s allegations.
Pittman’s new lawyer, Berney Strauss of Strauss & King in New Orleans, says, "I feel confident it will all be resolved."
Seaman Jamal Pittman initially tapped Buzbee — a Houston plaintiff lawyer who has represented high-profile clients such as singer Jimmy Buffet and a Dallas Cowboys football player — and The Buzbee Law Firm to represent him. Buzbee did not return three calls seeking comment.
On Nov. 12, 2012, represented by Buzbee, Pittman filed Jamal Pittman v. Hercules Offshore, Inc., a $5.5 million Jones Act claim against Hercules Offshore Inc. In the petition, Pittman alleged that while working a drilling operation on a Hercules Offshore vessel, he was injured in October 2012 after equipment failed. Hercules Offshore’s negligence led to the damages, he claimed.
Hercules Offshore filed an answer in the state court suit on Dec. 12, 2012, denying the seaman’s allegations.
On Jan. 7, Buzbee and his firm filed, in Pittman’s state-court suit, a motion to withdraw as counsel to Pittman, writing that Pittman "wishes to cease his attorney-client relationship. . . ."
That same day, they filed a motion to intervene in Pittman’s state court case. They alleged that Buzbee received a letter from Strauss on Dec. 19, 2012, notifying Buzbee that Strauss had been retained to represent Pittman.
But, the petition to intervene noted, "prior to that letter" Pittman "had never indicated any issues" with Buzbee’s representation. They described Pittman’s request — earlier on Dec. 19, 2012 — for and receipt of a loan for Christmas presents from Buzbee’s firm.
In their motion to intervene, they made a beach-of-contract claim against Pittman and a tortious-interference with a contract claim against Strauss.
They alleged that they "devoted a significant amount of time and energy prosecuting this case," and that Pitman had retained them and given them "present interest" in the plaintiff’s gross recovery from the law suit, as well pledged to cover their expenses, including loans.
Further, Buzbee and his firm identified what potential dollar amounts were at stake in their beef with Pittman and Strauss. They alleged that, when Pittman retained Buzbee and his firm, Pittman agreed to a 40 percent contingency fee.
Such a figure would have led to a $2.2 million payout for Buzbee and his firm if Pittman had stayed as a client and eventually won all the damages he sought in his suit.
Represented by Strauss, Pittman filed his federal court complaint on Jan. 25 in Louisiana with the same case name as the state court petition, repeating the allegations against Hercules Offshore. In that complaint, Pittman also makes his claims under the Jones Act and cites negligence as a cause of action against Hercules Offshore, but he seeks slightly less in damages than he had asked for in state court.
Vining says his client has not yet been served with the federal complaint but will deny the allegations in that court as well.
On Jan. 30, Buzbee and his firm filed an objection to Strauss’ motion to enroll as Pittman’s counsel in the state court case, alleging that Strauss is not licensed to practice in Texas.
On Feb. 4, 165th District Judge Elizabeth Ray granted Pittman’s Jan. 18 motion to dismiss his state court suit without prejudice.
Strauss writes, in a letter dated Feb. 6 attached to an email, that Buzbee’s objection alerted Strauss’ office to dues he owed to State Bar of Texas, which, unpaid, had triggered his temporary suspension from practicing in the state. Strauss writes that he has now paid those dues and been reinstated to practice in Texas.
Strauss writes that once his office discovered his unpaid bar dues the matter was "rectified in a matter of minutes" but that he intends to apologize to "the Court and other counsel" about "any inconvenience my oversight may have caused."