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Joseph Timothy Cook’s Advice To Plaintiffs In The Gulf Coast oil spill on picking an attorney

Monday, May 3, 2010

HH: AP story this afternoon, Lawyers Flock To Gulf Coast For Oil Spill Lawsuits. The first three paragraphs read, “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 befouls popular beaches, ruins fisheries, and disrupts traffic on the Mississippi River, attorney 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 Trans-Ocean Deep Water 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 service contractor, Halliburton Inc., improperly capped a well, a process known as cementing. Halliburton denied that. Investigators are still looking into the cause.” Well, with thousands of lawyers pursuing hundreds of thousands of potential plaintiffs, I though it was time to check in with my partner, Joseph Timothy Cook. You know Joseph Timothy Cook. He has been a guest on this program many, many times. After a distinguished career as a Naval aviator in the service of the United States, he went to the Department of Justice, and after leaving the Department of Justice, he became a plaintiffs lawyer, primarily in the field of representing the victims of aviation disasters, helicopter crashes, plane crashes, but other mass torts as well. And when I saw this, I asked Tim Cook, Joseph Timothy Cook, if he would join me to discuss what these people being approached by these lawyers ought to be thinking and doing. Hello, Joseph Timothy Cook.

JTC: Hi, Hugh, how are you doing?

HH: Good. All right, thousands of lawyers pursuing hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs. I don’t know that you’ve ever done anything like that.

JTC: Well, yeah an airplane crash case is not unlike this, particularly the ones that have more than a hundred victims. And the further on my career, the later in my career, the more it got to be lawyers descending as the piece described. Early on when I started, people, lawyers waited for people to come to them, and that has changed, and it’s not for the better.

HH: So what should people who are being hurt by this spill, or will be hurt by this spill, who see lawyers in town setting up offices or walking around with their briefcase or whatever, what should they be thinking, what should they be asking?

JTC: Okay, item one in my mind is don’t rush. There’s no hurry. They’re not going to get extra bonus points, or extra bonus dollars by being in the first nine of ten, or the first twenty or fifty. So just take your time. If it’s a personal injury that you’ve suffered, there were a number of people killed and a whole bunch more injured on this thing, if it’s an injury or death, take your time. Grieve. Take care of business. If it’s a financial or economic loss, a business loss, you know, tend to business. Get yourself organized. You don’t have to get a lawyer right now. There’s no urgency. They haven’t even figured out what really caused this. There’s a lot of theories and rumors, but they haven’t done the investigation, and it’s going to take some time. So there’s no rush. That’s item number one.

HH: So if a lawyer is rushing you, you should be suspicious of them.

JTC: Absolutely. Absolutely.

HH: All right, number two.

JTC: Number two is if you’ve got a friend who’s a lawyer, if you’ve got a neighbor, someone in your Church, or someone you went to high school with, and they’re a good friend of yours, use them as someone to help you through this process. Let them come on board, and let them help you, guide you to a good disaster attorney, and let them do the initial investigation.

HH: And for which they’ll probably be compensated, but they’ll be compensated by the disaster attorney, not by you.

JTC: Right. Their fee will come out of the disaster attorney’s fee, and it’s perfectly appropriate, and competent and qualified disaster attorneys know that. They deal with that all the time, and it’s a good way to proceed.

HH: Number three.

JTC: Don’t respond to attorneys who contact you directly on the phone, or come up to you in the street. That’s so bad, so wrong, don’t respond to them.

HH: All right, number four.

JTC: Number four, it used to be that we didn’t even send letters or brochures to victims in these circumstances. That has changed, regrettably, but the reality is the attorneys do send letters. And forward those to your consulting attorney, your pal, your buddy, the person from your home town that you’re dealing with, and let that person deal with the brochures and the letters. Don’t respond yourself. Have your attorney do it for you.

HH: All right, number five.

JTC: Okay, choose an attorney, well, when consulting with your consultant, choose an attorney from a firm that has done mass disasters before. And I would even put an additional note on that. We’re talking here about an engineering mass disaster. And I don’t think that I would recommend someone to go with mass disaster lawyers who have done tobacco or medical or drugs, or those kinds of things. I think there are sufficient factual differences here. You want an attorney who is comfortable with, an expert with dealing with engineering terms, engineering principles, and can understand that. And they don’t come, I don’t think, from the tobacco and the drug and the medical malpractice type field.

HH: All right, number six.

JTC: Once you, as you go through the process, you and your consultant will get to the point where you’re doing interviews with different lawyers, you know, narrow it down to three or four lawyers or law firms. And when you get into those interviews, ask questions about their contract. What’s the fee? What is the proposed fee? And what it is applied to? Is it applied to the total recovery? Or is it applied to the recovery after costs? Are there any other things that are taken off the top before the fee, the percentage fee is applied? What are the costs? Who pays the costs? Attorney travel – don’t make, make an agreement your attorney won’t travel first class on your dime. If he wants to go first class, fine, but he can pay the extra over coach. Same thing with office expenses. I mean, you shouldn’t have to pay copier expenses in this day an age. Copies are cheap, and it’s part of doing business. You should not, you should make sure that you don’t let your attorney hire experts who insist upon first class travel. Again, if he wants to travel first class, let him pay the extra. Either the attorney pay the expert, or let the expert pay it himself.

HH: All right, number seven.

JTC: Okay, ask questions about the process. Where’s the case going to be filed? What law’s going to apply? Has this attorney ever dealt with committees for discovery process, or trial? And has this attorney ever participated in a multi-district litigation before? There are a lot of attorneys out there that have no experience in these areas. Knowing the choice of law, knowing where the file to get the best choice of law, which state you want to file in, all those are expert areas of lawyerdom, lawyer work. And if your lawyer doesn’t know anything about it, then you don’t want to hire that guy. You’ll want to go to somebody else.

HH: Number eight, you’ve got thirty seconds.

TJC: Fee – never one third in a case like this. Seek 10%. There’s no reason to pay a third or forty percent in a case like this. These attorneys are going to have a lot of cases, and they’re going to get the benefit of that, and so you should never pay a third. I’d say 15-20% is probably a decent amount.

HH: I am out of time. Joseph Timothy Cook, thank you. If people have additional questions, just email Joseph Timothy Cook at

End of interview.

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