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As attorneys team up around the Gulf of Mexico to sign plaintiffs for BP oil spill litigation, key defendants have lined up three prominent Florida law firms to defend against spill cases in Florida. Akerman Senterfitt, Florida’s largest law firm, landed BP. It will handle all its Florida civil litigation. Cameron International, manufacturer of the failed blowout preventer, snapped up the second-largest firm, Greenberg Traurig. Halliburton Energy Services, which pumped cement at the well, hired Broad and Cassel. The fourth primary defendant is Transocean Deepwater, owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, has retained Jaime Betbeze of Hand Arendall, a Mobile, Ala., attorney with a Florida Bar license. With potentially billions in lost tourism and fishing industry dollars, and with its longer coastline, some believe Florida rather than Louisiana will be ground zero for oil spill litigation. But all eyes are on a multidistrict litigation panel, which will hear arguments in July to decide where the federal lawsuits should be consolidated. Not surprisingly, the oil industry is fighting for Texas, while plaintiff firms are pushing for Louisiana or Florida. “Florida will sustain the greatest amount of damages due to the tourist-related dollars up and down Florida,” said David Rash of Alters Boldt Brown Rash & Culmo of Miami, one of the plaintiff firms involved in spill litigation. Even if Florida is not chosen by the MDL panel, there is no question that spill litigation is fast replacing Chinese drywall as the biggest — and potentially most lucrative — litigation to hit Florida. A ‘YEAR-MAKER’ Akerman Chairman Andrew Smulian said Miami partner Jim Miller, chair of the firm’s litigation practice, is heading the effort. Smulian declined to reveal terms of the contract, but a former Akerman lawyer said the contract could be a “year-maker” for the firm, which has struggled to make its budget in the past few years. “That contract could be worth tens of millions of dollars to Akerman,” the source said. “It will keep the firm afloat.” BP likely was looking for a firm with a network of offices throughout the state, but unlike other major corporations does not require firms to include a percentage of minority shareholders, the source said. Smulian declined to state whether any lawyers objected to representing BP, calling those “internal issues.” But the Daily Business Review has learned that four state legislators who are of counsel at the firm wrote Smulian asking to be “walled off” from the BP representation. MDL PROSPECTS Barry Richard, a prominent Tallahassee-based shareholder with Greenberg Traurig, will head up the Cameron defense. Richard said in an interview that his firm got the contract through a referral from David Beck of Houston-based Beck Reddin & Secrest, who has been retained by Cameron to coordinate U.S. legal efforts and hire statewide counsel in Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama. Richard said he hopes the MDL panel picks Florida — and not only because fees for his firm would sharply escalate. “The firm that’s the lead counsel in the state where it’s happening is going to have a more interesting involvement than firms doing peripheral stuff rather than discovery,” he said. “If litigation goes on for years, fees could be millions of dollars.” Richard said he has no conscience pangs for taking the case — just as he had none when he represented George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential recount, even though he’s a Democrat. “I don’t think that way,” Richard said. “I represent who hires me. If someone calls me, and the case looks interesting, and I don’t have a conflict, I am interested. The whole legal system wouldn’t work if lawyers thought differently.” Besides, Richard said Cameron has a good case. “They manufactured the product. They didn’t install it. They didn’t maintain it,” he said. Steven Burton, managing partner of Broad and Cassel’s Tampa office and a member of the firm’s executive board, is heading the Halliburton litigation team. He declined comment, referring calls to Halliburton. The company did not return a call for comment by deadline. NO STRANGER TO CONTROVERSY Burton has deep ties to the Republican Party and is no stranger to controversy. A close ally of former Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, Burton was hired in 2003 to advise Byrd on technology issues at $250 an hour, and the firm came under fire for billing taxpayers $4.5 million for legal work from 2003 to 2005. Named by Gov. Charlie Crist to the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority last July, Burton, who is vice chair, has drawn criticism for immediately pushing for the agency to create an international marketing committee to be chaired by himself. Betbeze, who was hired by Transocean, declined comment. The Hand Arendall firm has 70 lawyers in Alabama and Mississippi and significant ties to the oil industry. According to sources who did not want to be identified, Florida law firms vied heavily to reel in the oil spill defendants, particularly BP. Sources say Holland & Knight was one of the firms that competed in a “beauty contest” and lost. A Holland & Knight spokeswoman declined comment. BIDDING FOR LEAD Rash’s firm is angling to be named lead counsel by teaming up this week with noted plaintiff firm Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley of West Palm Beach and Tom Girardi of Girardi Keese in Los Angeles. Girardi was lead counsel in the multidistrict Vioxx litigation as well as the Erin Brockovich groundwater contamination case. Rash’s firm also is involved in Chinese drywall cases. Other plaintiff firms that have quickly come forward include Krupnick Campbell Malone Buser Slama Hancock Liberman and McKee of Fort Lauderdale, which joined a 10-law firm national consortium called Gulf Oil Disaster Recovery Group; Orlando-based Morgan & Morgan; West Palm Beach-based Rosenbaum Mollengarden Janssen & Siracusa; and Pensacola-based Levin Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Echsner & Proctor. Ervin Gonzalez of Colson Hicks Eidson of Coral Gables, in the middle of trying the first state Chinese drywall case in Miami, squeezed in trips to the Gulf coast to sign up clients before trial. The firms have filed dozens of lawsuits in Florida federal courts, primarily against the four primary defendants. For the past five weeks, Rash has traveled up and down the Florida Gulf coast, from Fort Walton Beach to Madeira Beach, signing up fishermen clients. John Siracusa of Rosenbaum Mollengarden has focused on hotels in the Florida Keys that are getting cancellations even though no oil has washed ashore there. He said he has signed up 30 clients so far, and that’s all the firm can handle at this time. “They are all complaining, “We wish the media would say something about this,’ ” he said. “ But if it’s your family’s summer vacation coming up, I guess why take a chance?” Siracusa’s firm has filed individual suits against the four defendants, while other lawyers are filing class actions. “We didn’t want a part of any class action lawsuits,” he said. “We think the damages are too dissimilar. They’re not true class actions.” Alan Becker of Fort Lauderdale-based Becker & Poliakoff said his firm, which represents coastal communities and condominium associations on the west coast of Florida, said his firm has not yet been hired by any plaintiffs but has been preparing clients for potential litigation. “A lot of lawyers like to rush to file lawsuits,” he said. “There’s no need. These cases will be going on for many, many years.”

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