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BP lawsuit filed 'to get attention' for S.C. coast

Several class-action lawsuits filed against BP by local businesses and residents earlier this week are an effort to prompt action from the oil company and the state to plan for and head off problems if oil reaches the coast.

The lawsuits, filed Sunday, said that BP and its subcontractors on the Deepwater Horizon acted negligently and that the oil spewing from the well has entered the loop current and is threatening South Carolina's beaches, fishing habitats and business interests.

"We thought that filing this lawsuit now would at least get attention for our state," said Ed Bell, senior partner of Bell Legal Group, the lead lawyer in the suits.

"As South Carolinians we are concerned there is no plan being made to mitigate or protect our coastlines," said Bell, whose Georgetown firm is nationally known for taking on big corporations. For example, the firm has won multimillion-dollar verdicts against Ford Motor Co. for clients involved in Ford Explorer rollover accidents.

The three separate lawsuits represent different types of people and businesses affected - one a group of oceanfront property owners; the second, area restaurants; and commercial oceanfront property holders. The suits join thousands of other suits and claims filed against BP.

The companies and individuals said that property values have already begun to drop as a result of the reports predicting oil heading to the area. The lawsuit filed by a group of property owners also addresses the declining property values and the loss of the use of recreational and natural spaces.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to allow them to proceed as a class-action suit and are asking for at least $5 million in damages.

The predictions of oil potentially reaching the South Carolina coast has affected business and restaurants and caused some tourists with plans to vacation on the Grand Strand to consider changing destinations, said Tommy Brittain, a local attorney who is also representing some of the businesses that filed the lawsuit.

"This is an attention-getter," he said. "The way [BP has] been handling things, unless and until you take a very formal position about what should be done in a setting like a federal district court it is unlikely to get any kind of formal devotion of assets, time, creation of a plan."

BP declined to comment on the lawsuits, as the company does not comment on ongoing litigation, spokesman Max McGahan has said.

Oil has been gushing into the Gulf for 50 days and has become the largest oil spill in the country's history. BP has struggled to stop the flow, with a company official saying Tuesday that it expects to capture virtually all the oil leaking from the Gulf floor by early next week.

A relief well designed to stop the flow is expected to be done in August, but that may not be soon enough for those that filed the lawsuit.

The problem, according to Bell, is that BP isn't taking action to prevent the potential impact of oil reaching the S.C. coast while the damages can still be prevented.

"One of the main thrusts here is to encourage them to take actions that could prevent some of the problems," Bell said, and added that the government also should be working harder to come up with a plan and prepare.

The state does have a plan, and if the oil reaches the coast a unified command headed by the U.S. Coast Guard and including the Environmental Protection Agency, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will be in charge of the response effort, according to a statement from Gov. Mark Sanford's office.

The Coast Guard plan will expedite action to protect the coastline and will be activated if oil appears off the coast.

"State agencies are maintaining a heightened state of readiness, and will of course continue to monitor the situation," according the statement.

Coastal state legislators said that they too have done their part to urge the state to have a good plan in place. Several weeks ago the S.C. Senate passed a resolution calling on state officials and state agencies to aggressively plan for whatever contingencies might happen, said Sen. Luke Rankin, R- Myrtle Beach.

"My intention was a call to arms to make sure that we are not asleep at the switch," he said.

Coastal state senators have done everything possible to help plan for and prevent a disaster, said Sen. Ray Cleary, R, Murrells Inlet.

"What more do they want?" he said. "The state has already looked at it two, three, four weeks ago and asked that agencies come up with a contingency plan."

Bell and Brittain said that the ideal outcome would be for BP to work with the state to come up with a plan and take action to prevent oil from hitting the coast.

"We would love to be able to say that we didn't get a single penny from our lawsuit," Bell said. "[We] want to be able to say we were able to save our coast."

Bell said that as soon as the court allows, he will ask the court to intervene early and require BP and the other companies being sued to help mitigate the potential damages.

"We look forward to the challenge, but we hope, again, that this doesn't become a big legal battle," Bell said. "We can handle it if it is, but we would love for them to do what's right and work with us rather than against us."