Legal Briefing: Lawsuits Move Forward Against BP in Alabama

Legal Briefing: Businesses SLAPP Critics With Lawsuits for Bad ReviewsA daily look at legal news and the business of law.

Lawsuits Move Forward Against BP. Is a DOJ Investigation Next?

Alabama is proving to be an early plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction for lawsuits against BP (BP), reports the National Law Journal. BP is trying to delay responding to lawsuits until after all the lawsuits can be consolidated into one mega-case, or a few mega-cases. In three different rulings, however, Alabama judges are allowing individual cases to proceed, at least through the early stages of the lawsuits. As a result, BP is going to have to respond to -- "answer" -- the allegations in the plaintiffs' complaints. Could make interesting reading.

Separately, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is flying to the region Tuesday to meet with federal and state prosecutors about the spill, and he will be giving a press conference Tuesday afternoon, reports The Washington Post. The newspaper wonders if the trip signals the start of a criminal investigation of BP. Whether or not an investigation is starting now, I'm positive one will begin soon, so that charges can be filed before there's any risk of a statute of limitations problem.

On the merits, reporting so far shows that at best BP was at least negligent, and more likely deeply reckless with its approach to drilling this well. BP apparently hadn't had control of the well for weeks before the accident, and was worried about the rig's safety for months before the accident. And yet BP pushed ahead in a hurried, improvisational way, without stepping back to plan for the kind of disaster that resulted. And it's not as if the catastrophic failure that resulted was impossible to imagine: It's precisely the kind of worst-case scenario that common sense suggests might occur.

Politically speaking, the best way for the Obama administration to redeem its currently troubled image on all things oil spill would be to take a two-pronged approach. First, the administration must go after BP with every enforcement power available. Second, it must lead the way on implementing changes to laws and regulations to prevent similar disasters in the future. So whether or not Holder's visit signals the start of the enforcement actions, fear not -- they're coming.

Negative Internet Reviews Prompt Meritless, Harassing Lawsuits

Consumers who write negative Internet reviews that are purely opinion are increasingly facing "SLAPP" suits from the businesses being panned, reports The New York Times. SLAPP stands for "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation," and refers to cases whose sole purpose is to silence the defendants. Being sued is a big deal: It's expensive, it's time consuming, it's public, and ultimately, it can be too much to face for ordinary people simply trying to make their voices heard. Slightly more than half of U.S. states offer protection against SLAPP suits, and the federal government is currently considering nationwide protection. Anti-SLAPP laws make dismissing such lawsuits at an early stage much easier, which limits the damage the suits can do.

The New York Times article describes the example of a Michigan college student whose car was towed by T&J Towing, despite the car displaying a valid permit for the spot it was in. After paying $118 to rescue his car, the student created a Facebook page called "Kalamazoo residents against T&J Towing," and recounted his experience online. Soon, 800 more people joined, sharing their own T&J horror stories. (Not coincidentally, the local Better Business Bureau had given the company a failing grade based on complaints.)

T&J Towing sued for defamation, seeking $750,000 in damages. Michigan doesn't have an anti-SLAPP law, so the student is fighting back more conventionally with a motion to dismiss and a countersuit claiming that T&J Towing is abusing the legal process.

And in the Business of Law...

• As the economy has improved, a weekly column at Law Shucks has increasingly focused on industry news beyond layoffs. This week's column has good advice for summer associates, a round up of international deals, news of lateral moves, lawsuits, and yes, six layoffs. However, attorneys in the U.S. can rest easy -- the layoffs were in the Lisbon office of Linklaters.

• Can Google be held liable for giving a woman unsafe walking directions? We're going to find out. A Utah woman who was hit by a car while following a route Google recommended -- along a high-speed road that didn't have sidewalks -- is suing the search giant. If the person who hit her was driving irresponsibly, I hope he pays dearly. But let's hope the courts dismiss Google from this suit. The accident just isn't its fault.
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