Correction: This article has been changed to correct the firm of Gutierrez’s lawyer.
In the aftermath of the deadly April 17 blast in West, plaintiffs have already filed three lawsuits against the owner of the fertilizer plant where a fire triggered the explosion. Sensitive to the freshness of the tragedy and aware of the potential for West residents to take offense, plaintiff lawyers are downplaying their interest in getting clients.
Dallas’ Baron & Budd is among the law firms expressing interest in potential litigation. Its website message read, "Please call us . . . if you have been hurt by the West Fertilizer plant explosion. Baron & Budd has decades of experience helping disaster victims and was a leader in the BP oil spill litigation. We are currently investigating the disaster that unfolded in West, Texas. . . ."
Baron & Budd shareholder John Langdoc says the firm is taking a cautious approach and declines to specify whether it has clients with prospective claims related to the explosion.
"Baron & Budd is always interested in helping those with toxic exposure," he says.
But he also stresses that the firm has told prospective clients to "slow down" and that the firm wants "to know exactly what we are talking about" before filing any cases.
Langdoc says, "Our recommendation has been: Let’s wait to determine the extent of the damages, including any latent exposures. Let’s make sure we really understand what was responsible for the accident."
Steve Harrison is a partner in Harrison Davis Steakley Morrison, a firm based in Waco, just 30 minutes south of West. He confirms that his firm purchased advertising space in the Waco Tribune-Herald to run "an expression of our grief" about the West explosion.
Harrison says a legal assistant from his firm who resides in West was hurt in the blast, and he objects to the notion that lawyers are simply seeking to profit from the tragedy.
"There are a lot folks fussing about the lawyers’ involvement, but there is a lot of good involvement," he says.
He points contributions by his firm and by Texas Trial Lawyers Association members to a relief fund established by the local Pointwest Bank. Harrison says his firm gave a gift to the fund of $11,000, and TTLA members statewide have given a matching amount.
As far as clients, Harrison says he has "several" but declines to quantify. Harrison too has postponed filing lawsuits.
"There is a lot we still need to learn," he says.
Other Texas lawyers, including Paul Grinke, a shareholder in Dallas’ McCathern, represent clients who have filed lawsuits against Adair Grain Inc., the company that owns the fertilizer plant. Some 17 clients of his — including four insurance companies and Gerik’s Olde Czech Bakery — filed a suit on April 19 against Adair Grain Inc., the owner of the fertilizer plant, which is doing business as West Fertilizer Co. In Acadia Insurance Co., et al v. Adair Grain Inc. dba West Fertilizer Co., the plaintiffs claim negligence and seek damages.
Daniel Keeney, spokesperson for West Fertilizer Co. issued a statement April 24 in response to questions related to lawsuits stemming from thefire and explosion:
We decline to comment on any pending litigation. Our focus remains on the fact finding. We continue to do everything we can to understand what happened to ensure nothing like this ever happens again in any community. To that end, the owners and staff of West Fertilizer Co. are working closely with investigating agencies. We have encouraged all employees to assist in the fact finding to whatever degree possible.
Grinke says he recognizes that the residents of West, which has a population of 2,800, may have a negative reaction to lawyers seeking to file lawsuits so soon after the blast.
"They do have a bad taste in their mouth about the onslaught of lawyer advertising. There might be a little bit of push-back. Some of them are saying, ‘We haven’t even had our funerals.’ "
But Grinke says he’s raising no objections or concerns about any of the advertising he has seen lawyers direct to solicit victims of the West disaster.
"I am not personally critical of anything I have seen," he says.
His 17 clients in Acadia filed the lawsuit "strictly as a legal maneuver," he says. By doing so, they will gain access the early investigations of the plant.
Also, he says, the suit gives him a foot in the courthouse door: "I have a judge to go to if I get any kind of push-back," he says.
On April 22, Andrea J. Gutierrez filed a claim against Adair and the West Fertilizer Co. Randy Roberts of Tyler’s Roberts & Roberts, who represents Gutierrez, was not reached by press time.
Jason Gibson of the Gibson Law Firm in Houston represents Bridgett and Roger Bowles, two West residents, who filed a petition against Adair Grain Inc.on April 24. In their petition, Bridgett and Roger Bowles v. Adair Grain Inc. dba West Fertlizer, Co., the Bowles claim negligence and seek damages. They allege in their petition that Roger Bowles, who was in his house when the plant exploded, witnessed his roof "lift off the walls and then collapse itself."
Gibson says, "Litigation is going to be inevitable, and the big question: Is there going to be enough insurance coverage for the losses? The only way to find out is to get a lawsuit on file."
Gibson, who says he has other clients, says he had considering filing for some survivors who lost family members in the blast but opted to hold back.
"It’s still so fresh, there are still the memorials, so I’m just not pushing those cases," Gibson says.