Image: Workers load oil booms
Patrick Semansky  /  AP
The Gulf oil spill is expected to trigger numerous lawsuits.
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updated 5/1/2010 3:42:41 PM ET 2010-05-01T19:42:41

Teams of lawyers from around the nation are mobilizing for a gargantuan legal battle over the massive Gulf Coast oil spill, filing multiple lawsuits in recent days that together could dwarf the half-billion dollars awarded in the Exxon Valdez disaster two decades ago.

If the oil slick fouls popular beaches, ruins fisheries and disrupts traffic on the Mississippi River, attorneys say there could be hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs from Texas to Florida seeking monetary damages from oil producer BP PLC and other companies that ran the Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

At least 26 federal lawsuits have been filed since the spill by commercial fishermen, charter boat captains, resort management companies and individual property owners in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. Many of the suits claim the disaster was caused when workers for oil services contractor Halliburton Inc. improperly capped a well — a process known as cementing. Halliburton denied that. Investigators are still looking into the cause.

Capt. Mike "Sandbar" Salley, who runs Sure Shot Charters out of Orange Beach, Ala., is one of many fishermen watching helplessly as customers cancel fishing excursions at the start of a busy summer season, in which he makes 80 percent of his income. Salley, 51, is a plaintiff in one of the potential class-action lawsuits seeking to recover damages from the operators of the sunken oil rig.

"It's somebody's fault and somebody needs to answer for it," said Salley, who added that his phone and those of other boat captains have been ringing nonstop with lawyers seeking oil-spill clients. "This is going to shut down the entire coast."

Bigger than Exxon Valdez?
Toxic residues remain to this day after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, studies have shown. Thousands of fishermen, cannery workers, landowners and Native Americans were initially awarded $5 billion in punitive damages. That was reduced on appeal to $2.5 billion and then, in 2008, cut down to $507.5 million by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even though the Supreme Court reduced the size of damages, attorneys said the Gulf Coast cases have the potential to be much bigger considering the large coastal population and diverse economy that includes tourism, fishing and shipping industries.

Slideshow: Remembering the Exxon Valdez Most of the lawsuits filed so far are potential class-action cases, meaning the plaintiffs seek to represent an entire group of people in similar situations who claim to have suffered economic losses due to company negligence.

Louisiana attorney Daniel Becnel is leading one group of lawyers suing BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd. and companies that had roles in rig operations, such as Cameron International, which produced the rig's blowout preventers.

Becnel said such legal teams are common in large, complex cases because each lawyer brings their own specialties. They also set up committees to screen potential clients and identify the strongest cases.

"I want the best brief writers. I want the best deposition takers. I want the best lawyers who can work with experts," said Becnel, who has also been involved in recent Toyota recall and Chinese drywall lawsuits.

Typically when numerous federal lawsuits make similar allegations in different courts, they are consolidated before a single judge who makes key pretrial decisions, such as whether to certify lawsuits as a class action and whether to allow the case to continue to trial.

'Difficult time'
The companies named as defendants declined comment on the lawsuits, although Transocean did issue a statement saying its "focus remains on meeting the needs of family members during this difficult time" as well as supporting BP in cleanup efforts. Halliburton said in a statement that it was cooperating with the investigation, adding that it was "premature and irresponsible to speculate" on the possible cause of the explosion.

Slideshow: Wildlife at risk The cases could also impact Lloyd's of London, Transocean's major insurer.

Family members of the 11 men missing and feared dead are also beginning to file lawsuits, which are governed by a special maritime law known as the Death on the High Seas Act.

Natalie Roshto of Amite County, Miss., wife of missing rig worker Shane Roshto, claimed in her lawsuit filed in Louisiana federal court on April 21 that she is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Initially, her lawsuit seeks payment of $40 a day since the explosion under what are called "maintenance and cure" benefits provide by those laws.

Troy Wetzel, a 45-year-old charter captain in Venice, La., is among those filing a potential class-action case. He ticked off a list of hardships that began with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, continued with Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and is now capped by the oil spill.

Wetzel said his lawsuit isn't aimed at driving the oil industry out of the Gulf Coast.

"We do want oil wells. We love them. It's a giant reef," he said, referring to how fish congregate around rigs. "All we want is for them to clean up their problem before they start drilling any more, and take care of us. If you're going to ruin our environment, you've got to take care of us."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Above: Slideshow (15) Oil disaster in Gulf - Month 4
  2. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (64) Oil disaster in Gulf - Month 3
  3. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil disaster in Gulf - Month 2
  4. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
    Hans Deryk / Reuters
    Slideshow (53) Oil disaster in Gulf - Month 1
  5. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (10) Oil disaster in Gulf - Rig explosion

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