By DIONNE SEARCEY
NEW ORLEANS—Just as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has surpassed the scope of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, it appears the torrent of related litigation has, too.
Lawyers here are busy trying to increase the size and scope of the lawsuits they have filed on behalf of people who contend they were harmed in some way by the disaster spreading along the Gulf of Mexico coast.
Families of employees killed in the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig, leased by BP PLC, have filed suits, as have many of the 115 survivors of the incident and some of the rescuers who plucked people from the burning waters.
There are suits from those who say they have been hurt economically, including shrimpers, oystermen and fishermen, seafood processing plants, deep-sea fishing operations and businesses and municipalities that rely on tourism. Environmental groups have filed litigation of their own. Oil industry employees out of work because of a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling could have a legal claim as well.
The opening of criminal and civil investigations by the government, announced Tuesday, will likely fuel efforts by plaintiffs' attorneys.
Hoping to reel in more clients, attorneys have snapped up domain names such as bigoilspills.com and put up billboards along highways saying "Oil spill hurt your business?" and advertising their services.
Some attorneys have sent representatives to Key West, Fla., to sign up clients even though oil has yet to wash ashore there—and may never. Others are casting a wider net for defendants, including the Republic of the Marshall Islands, under whose flag the rig is registered.
Last week they held a symposium to trade tips on how to most effectively sue big oil companies, based in part on their experience with Exxon after its Alaska spill.A spokesman for BP declined to comment.
Transocean Ltd., which owns the rig, has cited the "Shipowners' Limitation of Liability Act of 1851" to keep its liability under $27 million. Congress is considering changing that law to do away with the limit.
"Transocean continues to cooperate with all relevant authorities looking into the Deepwater Horizon accident," a Transocean spokesman said in an email. "We have not been named in any criminal investigation and we will not speculate on actions the Justice Department may or may not take." The company declined to comment on the litigation.
BP won't discuss its legal strategy, but that hasn't kept plaintiffs attorneys from trying to predict its moves. Based on Exxon's maneuvers during litigation over the Exxon Valdez incident, the attorneys anticipate that BP will emphasize the importance of offshore drilling as part of U.S. policy, how much BP has spent on cleanup and how sorry it is for the spill.
The lawyers must sort through a morass of laws that apply to maritime disasters, some of which were put in place in response to the sinking of the Titanic, said Thomas Galligan, a law professor and president of Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire. Some laws prevent people on cruise ships or oil rigs from receiving certain types of damage payments, he said.
In some ways, the Deepwater Horizon litigation is likely to mimic the legal cases stemming from the Exxon Valdez spill, litigation that took about 20 years to be resolved. After lengthy appeals, damages that were at one point as high as roughly $5 billion were slashed to $500 million, with Alaska's fisherman plaintiffs each receiving an average of $15,000 in payments. Exxon, which faced criminal charges for breaking environmental laws, eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and paid $1 billion to settle the case.
In other ways, the Exxon Valdez litigation was simpler: fewer fishermen were affected, and the suits were filed only in Alaska. Deepwater Horizon suits span several states in the Gulf Coast region. By some estimates, BP could be on the hook for legal liabilities in the billions of dollars.
It may be years before the full effects of the spill on the Gulf are known, so damages are hard to predict. Elizabeth Cabraser, who represented plaintiffs in the Exxon Valdez spill, said many of her clients in Alaska died before their case was resolved.
"Time is the enemy of the pursuit of deterrents, compensation and justice," said Ms. Cabraser, who has also filed suits against BP on behalf of shrimpers and others. "All haste must be made."
Some attorneys fighting BP are hoping the litigation will be heard in New Orleans, long considered to have juries and judges who generally are friendly to plaintiffs, and full of possible jurors affected by the spill. BP is seeking to have the suits heard in oil-friendly Texas.
BP so far has processed more than 25,000 claims for economic losses from peopleapplying for help as part of a federal program set up under the Oil Pollution Act. It has paid more than $29 million in claims, according to court filings. Many of the claimants have also filed lawsuits against BP.