Murphy suit settlement draws fire from Reserve attorney

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 10, 2005

Becnel declares St. Bernard spill under-estimated to lessen payout amounts



RESERVE – An attempt by Murphy Oil to begin settling with residents affected by the Hurricane Katrina-related oil spill in St. Bernard Parish is being highly criticized by a Reserve attorney spearheading a class action suit against the company.

Murphy Oil Corp. opened five adjustment offices recently to meet with those who say oil from the refinery near Chalmette contaminated their homes.

Coast Guard officials confirmed immediately after Hurricane Katrina that at least 160,000 gallons of oil spilled from refinery tanks at the Murphy Oil facility.

Daniel Becnel Jr., who has already filed a suit seeking class action status in the case, contends that 890,000 gallons of oil spilled.

However the recent move by Murphy Oil to start settling individually with those affected was strongly criticized this week by Becnel, in an exclusive story with L’Observateur.

“Plain and simply, they are trying to take advantage of these poor people who have been so badly affected by this spill,” he said. “They are going in to people and trying to get them to settle for small amounts of money, just because these people are so desperate right now. They have lost everything they own, and the company knows these people are desperate for money right now.”

The company announced the policy on its web site and in newspaper ads, with Murphy Chief Executive Claiborne Deming saying in a quarterly conference call to investors that his company is trying to “quickly and fairly deal with this issue.”

Murphy’s attorney George Frilot said the company should have the right to approach residents, “until the class is certified. We have a First Amendment right to speak with them.”

However Becnel pointed to his statistic indicating only 27 percent of St. Bernard residents had flood insurance, making it clear there was a desperate situation involving residents there. “These people are being pressed to settle, just hoping they can salvage their homes somehow,” Becnel said. “But do you realize how bad it is when you get the oil, the benzene from the oil, soaked into a house? The only way to fix it is to completely clean the site down to the dirt the house sits on. But this company just wants to settle with people and move on. They are trying to get out of their responsibility in this situation and we just won’t let it happen.”

Becnel has filed briefs in court asking a judge to halt Murphy’s attempts to settle, until the entire case is certified as a class action, which then gives all plaintiffs the backing of the lawyers in the case.

Some financial analysts say the costs of the spill could be more than $1 billion, however Murphy spokesman Mindy West told L’Observateur that “Murphy Oil believes that insurance coverage exists for this release and it does not expect to incur significant costs associated with the class action lawsuits.”