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  • June/2010

Oil Spill Lawsuits Come Quickly

by Jared Newnam
June 29, 2010

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and the resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have ignited countless legal issues for oil company BP and its contractors. More than 100 lawsuits related to the spill were filed just in the first two months following the April 20 accident and many are class-action suits filed on behalf of groups of victims. 

The types of lawsuits stemming from the disaster range from personal injury and loss of business to noncompliance with environmental laws and jurisdictional issues, legal experts say. Even BP shareholders have filed a class-action suit in which they allege a history of safety lapses, cost cutting, and workplace disasters and claiming the company misled investors. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, seeks to represent people from all around the world who bought shares in United Kingdom-based BP. 

Closer to home, the spill has affected local fishermen and fish sellers, businesses who depend on tourists, people who own property and those who eke out a living on the coast. The sooner plaintiffs address their legal concerns the better, says attorney Karen Hanson Riebel. That’s the lesson Riebel took away from her work as a member of a trial team that initially won a $5 billion jury verdict for punitive damages in the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation. Riebel’s Minneapolis law firm, Lockridge Grindal Nauen P.L.L.P., spent two decades on a class action suit that began with 32,500 class members. By the time the case reached the Supreme Court in the fall of 2007 almost 20% of the class members had died. 

“Time is the enemy,” she says. Those affected by the BP oil spill have got to jump on any litigation now, Riebel believes. “People think it’s unseemly that there are lawyers there now, but there’s got to be a good process and people have got to be paid.” 

Riebel was in New Orleans in late May for the Louisiana State Bar Association’s Gulf Coast Oil Spill Symposium where she and her law partner Richard Lockridge gave a presentation called the Exxon Valdez Experience. 

There are many similarities between the kinds of litigation involved in the Exxon spill and what likely will come up with the BP spill, she said. Plaintiffs will include those in the fishing and tourist industries but also city, county, and state governments that may find their infrastructures taxed as much by the cleanup as the spill itself. The influx of people coming into the communities to clean up the spill and the reporters who are there to cover it could strain the sewage and water systems of some municipalities, Riebel said. Cities could make claims for the increased costs in public services such as police and emergency personnel.  

There could be recreational use claims because jurisdictions and the tourist industry will lose revenue from the loss of visitors. At the end of May, Florida hotels along the coast had reported that reservations were down 30% to 40%. Local governments could also claim losses for the lack of incoming sales tax due to the lag in the tourist industry. Plus, there likely will be lost revenue since people won’t be buying fishing licenses. 

Riebel predicted that the people who will be hurt the most are those who subsist on what they harvest from the ocean along that coast. Their losses may be difficult to prove. Many people rely on fishing in Gulf waters for the food they eat, and those victims aren’t likely to hang around for a claims program, she said. Smaller businesses will have a hard time recouping their losses through litigation. 

“It’s hard for individual fishermen,” Riebel says. “They don’t necessarily keep good records and save things they need to save to prove what they may have lost in a disaster like this. … A hotel in Florida will have occupancy data. A small shrimping rig may not have the records to prove their losses.” 

The Valdez oil spill happened in 1989. Monetary damages for the cases Riebel worked on were not finalized until 2009, after Exxon successfully appealed earlier verdicts all the way to the Supreme Court. The final settlement was $507.5 million in punitive damages, a fraction of the original $5 billion jury verdict. 

“We had a huge population of plaintiffs that never saw the end to the litigation,” Riebel says. “That’s the big lesson.”

by Jared Newnam
June 29, 2010
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Can Horses Help with Counseling?

by Jared Newnam
June 1, 2010

Instead of meeting for the usual office visits, some mental health professionals and their patients are holding their sessions in barns, pastures, or paddocks. The unconventional settings are the backdrop for a growing clinical approach called equine-assisted therapy, which uses interactions with horses to help patients work through difficulties and feelings they experience in their daily lives. 

For example, a horse that a patient tries to bridle could resist, continually throwing its head back. Frustrated after a couple of attempts, the patient’s immediate impulse might be to give up, or blame the horse for being stubborn. But with guidance, patients might also find that successfully dealing with some animals, like some people, just requires the flexibility to take a different tack. 

“Often the interaction mirrors how you approach other problems,” says Lisa Baugh, a marriage and family therapist based in Palm Beach County, Florida, who also has trained to do equine-assisted psychotherapy. 

Equine-assisted therapy can be used to augment traditional psychotherapy and counseling, or it can serve as a primary intervention, says Denny Cecil-Van Den Huevel, the program director of Professional Counseling at South University — West Palm Beach. Cecil-Van Den Huevel has tapped Baugh’s expertise both in clinical practice and in her classes.

It becomes metaphorical. The horses aren’t horses, they’re what they represent to the client.

“I originally became interested in it from a supplemental point of view, with a few patients who needed an experiential kind of therapy,” she says. In her classes, she works with Baugh to introduce equine-assisted therapy because “I like to expose students to different modes of therapy so they see ways of thinking outside the box and possibilities other than sitting in an office doing talk therapy.”

Baugh says equine-assisted therapy has roots in the experiential therapies that evolved from Gestalt, a school of thinking that held real-world situations were essential to psychological research and treatment. One mode of experiential therapy that has grown over the past half century is animal-assisted therapy. Some sources credit the seminal work in that area to child psychologist Boris Levinson, who wrote in the 1960s about his success using his own dog, Jingles, to reach young patients. The field has since expanded to encompass work with horses, dolphins, and other creatures.

Using horseback riding as a therapeutic activity and “the idea of incorporating horses in activities to help people has been around for hundreds of years, but it didn’t become more formalized probably until the early 1990s,” says Lynn Thomas, executive director of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), based in Santaquin, Utah.

Because horses are large, powerful animals, they can be particularly useful in representing big, life challenges and for helping people build confidence or overcome fears, Thomas says. Although they are social animals, they also have distinct personalities, moods, and a preference for their herds. These attributes can call forth some of the same reactions and behaviors from patients as they exhibit in human interactions or in coping with challenges in their own lives.

“It becomes metaphorical,” Thomas says. “The horses aren’t horses, they’re what they represent to the client.”

There’s no specific kind of patient to whom equine-assisted therapy is most suited, Thomas says. But she noted that people uncomfortable with the idea of traditional talk therapy might find equine-assisted sessions “less intimidating,” because the interactions serve as a natural focus for discussion. Animal therapy, in general, also can be particularly useful for people with attachment disorders, Cecil-Van Den Huevel notes.

Nor is there a single style of practice among professionals who offer equine-assisted therapy.

“There are different models,” says Thomas, a licensed clinical social worker who co-founded EAGALA after gaining exposure to equine-therapy through work at a residential treatment ranch for youth with social and emotional difficulties. The models range from using horseback riding to help patients overcome physical or emotional handicaps to setting up situations that facilitate psychotherapy, she added. Equine-assisted activities also attract individuals who are seeking personal growth or groups of people seeking to understand or improve their interactions.

There is no licensure or formal training requirement for equine-assisted therapists, though as the largest professional organization for practitioners, with more than 3,500 members, EAGALA is trying to bring standards to the field with its own certification program, Thomas says. EAGALA offers training and promotes a practice standard under which teams of two — an equine specialist and a licensed mental health professional — work together with patients.

Costs for equine-assisted therapy vary, depending on the region in which it’s given, the credentials of the professional involved, and limits under insurance plans that cover it, Thomas says. She estimated that in the U.S., individual sessions, usually lasting an hour or so, average between $75 and $175. It’s also impossible to estimate how many people are undergoing equine-assisted therapy, though EAGALA is surveying members about their volumes. Thomas believes the field “is definitely growing” based on media attention and her organization’s growth.

Research documenting the benefits of equine-assisted therapy is not yet robust, though EAGALA gathers and posts published studies and academic papers on a portion of its website.

“The small amount that’s been done has been very positive about the results people get with this modality,” Thomas says.

by Jared Newnam
June 1, 2010
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