Special Reports

Oil spill fears stir business for lawyers (with photo galleries and video)

BRADENTON — Among those seeking legal advice about an oil spill still far from our shores are a Sarasota Realtor; a long-time fishing guide; the president of a fishermen’s association, and a local wholesale/retail seafood purveyor.

Potential claimants are meeting with lawyers to discuss their plight as a result of British Petroleum’s oil well that continues to blacken the Gulf with the largest spill in U.S. history.

“My family is pretty certain to be signing with Alters, Boldt, Brown, Rash & Culmo,” said Karen Bell, office manager at A.P. Bell Fish Co., a venerable wholesale and retail seafood business at Cortez.

She attended a recent meeting led by South Florida lawyer David Rash, who urged local businesspeople to band together to fight BP because years of their future earnings could be at stake.

Bell said she appreciated Rash’s thorough understanding of the seafood industry, acquired in part from a familial connection.

“Aside from that, the firm seems to have a good history with high-profile cases,” Bell said. “Chinese drywall and tobacco were two issues they’ve been involved with.”

She planned to investigate whether her company would be better off filing a claim directly with BP, or asking Rash’s firm to handle it, she said.

“We do not want to move too quickly, as at this point, the only damage we’ve suffered has been in the public’s perception of the safety of seafood,” Bell said. “That hurt us, but we’re still here, and we’re still buying and selling a quality product.”

Another potential claimant is a Sarasota Realtor who has lost two sales of waterfront property, according to Patricia A. Petruff, a member of the Bradenton firm Dye, Deitrich, Petruff & St. Paul.

“We are hearing from people,” said Petruff, who specializes in environmental law. “One of my law partners today indicated that a Realtor had lost some sales in Sarasota waterfront property because the people were concerned about long-term value of the property, whether it’s the right time to buy.

“We have a Realtor out some commissions, significant commissions, and I’m also aware there are tourist-related businesses on Anna Maria Island, where people are starting to report cancellations, that type of thing,” she said.

Fishing Capt. Jonnie Walker, with decades of experience, is also among those seeking legal help.

He was aboard his boat in the Gulf on Wednesday, but confirmed before his cellphone faded that he had sought a meeting with lawyers focusing on the spill. He has been a professional fishing guide in Sarasota Bay since 1974, according to his website.

About 100 fishing guides or more are expected to attend a meeting 6 p.m. Monday at the Keating Marine Education Center at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota.

The meeting is open to the public, said attorney William Partridge, who helped to organize the meeting. There will be a presentation about the effect of oil on marine life, and then a discussion about effects of the spill itself, he said. Partridge’s Sarasota firm, Grossman, Roth & Partridge, P.A., then plans to discuss BP’s claims procedure and alternatives to it, he said.

“This is informative for those people whose businesses may be affected by the oil spill,” Partridge said. “They call it a spill — we call it a disaster.”

“The meeting was primarily set up because fishing guides wanted information and direction,” he said.

Also slated to meet with representatives of various law firms is Glen Brooks, president of the Gulf Fishermen’s Association, with about 500 members, many of them from Manatee.

Among the topics will be how the legal process works, how to put paperwork in order, how long litigation might take, and that all-important matter: years of lost income, Brooks said.

“The presentations give us an overview, a rundown, what their fees are, claims we can handle ourselves, what information you turn over to BP, and what you tell them — it could come back to haunt you if you’re not careful,” Brooks said.

So what is he hearing thus far from the fishermen who are members of his organization?

“Everybody’s worried to death about being put out of work,” he said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.

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