Lawyer steps from dad’s shadow in spill legal fight

By Tom Hals

WILMINGTON, Delaware (BestGrowthStock) – A Shakespeare-quoting father and his novelist son have emerged as leading lawyers in the Gulf oil-spill legal battle after winning the fight to bring hundreds of lawsuits to their home court in New Orleans.

Russ Herman, 67, has spent the past half century battling big corporations and has landed billions in settlement payouts. As one of the biggest U.S. court cases takes shape, he wants to pass the baton to his son, Steve, a partner in his law firm.

“I’m like the father of the groom. It’s Steve’s case,” he said.

Steve Herman, 41, will be jostling with other plaintiffs’ lawyers who represent injured workers, idled fishermen, restaurateurs and oceanfront resorts seeking damages from BP Plc and other defendants. Some lawyers predict the ultimate legal costs may exceed the $20 billion the British energy company has promised for a claims fund.

Earlier this week, a special judicial panel picked New Orleans federal judge Carl Barbier to oversee hundreds of spill-related lawsuits filed around the country, welcome news to many lawyers who see the city’s federal courthouse as especially plaintiff friendly.

BP had wanted the suits combined in Houston, where it has its U.S. headquarters. The judicial panel did agree to combine shareholder cases against BP before a Houston judge.

The younger Herman said he hopes to turn his current role of interim co-liaison counsel, which he shares with attorney James Roy of Lafayette, Louisiana, into a permanent job for the hundreds of cases which have been consolidated in New Orleans.

The spill hit just as the city was riding a wave of good times including the local Saints football team winning the Super Bowl and the arrival of a new mayor.

“Then the oil spill comes and I don’t know how to explain the damage done to a culture’s psyche,” said Russ Herman.

Liaison counsel can be a largely administrative role. But Steve Herman said he hopes to play a “substantive role,” just as his father used liaison counsel to direct talks that led to a $4.85 billion settlement with Merck & Co over the lawsuits relating to the Vioxx painkiller.

One of the first acts of business in the BP cases will be choosing a steering committee of lawyers. Committee members play a leading role in directing the litigation and can demand an added slice of any fees that come from potential jury verdicts or settlements with BP or other defendants.

The Hermans’ law firm, Herman Herman Katz & Cotlar, is a family affair. Russ’ brother, Maury, is also a partner there.

The Herman family has long roots in the Gulf area, arriving in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century. Russ Herman’s father started the family law practice.

“Harry Herman never made $40,000 or $50,000 in his life,” Russ Herman said of his father, who he said focused on helping small businesses and African Americans.

When large, complex cases come to New Orleans, Russ Herman has had a knack for landing a leadership role. In addition to Vioxx, he also was at the forefront of cases linked to Propulsid, a heartburn drug blamed for hundreds of deaths, and lawsuits tied to tainted Chinese drywall.

Steve Herman’s resume includes a long fight against American Tobacco Co, which yielded a $591 million jury award for smokers in state court.

“He’s extremely bright and he’s watched his father do this for decades,” said Richard Arsenault, of Neblett, Beard & Arsenault, a plaintiffs’ firm in Alexandria, Louisiana.

While Steve Herman took the lead behind the scenes to bring the Gulf spill cases to New Orleans, it was his father who argued for the city in a booming voice and with his expansive presence before a panel of judges in Boise, Idaho last month.

In his arguments, Russ Herman quoted from both Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” as well as Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” lyrics.

He “put on his New Orleans flair,” as one observer noted.

Steve Herman has his own literary streak. He won a playwright contest while a student at Dartmouth College and has written three little-known murder mystery novels. “With writing (legal) briefs you know you have a captive audience. You know someone is going to read it,” said Steve Herman.

To continue in the liaison role in the BP cases, Steve Herman will need to convince America’s most experienced plaintiffs attorneys who have joined the case that an heir apparent deserves a coveted leadership role.

But some plaintiffs attorneys, who did not want to be identified because they continue to work with the Hermans, questioned if Steve Herman was essentially cutting in line for a leadership role without the experience.

Russ Herman said his son is ready for the job.

“My talent will never rise to the level of my ego. His talent will always exceed the level of his ego,” Russ Herman said of his son.

(Reporting by Tom Hals; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

Lawyer steps from dad’s shadow in spill legal fight