From Texas Lawyer

Less than a month after San Antonio lawyer Mikal Watts was acquitted of criminal charges related to BP oil spill litigation, a group of Vietnamese-American fisherman living in the Gulf Coast has filed a fresh complaint against Watts, his firm and others, seeking millions of dollars in penalties for civil barratry.

Texas’ barratry provisions are aimed at curtailing lawyer “ambulance-chasing,” or illegal client solicitation.

“This lawsuit represents the most-important case in Texas history regarding barratry. It involves unethical and criminal conduct committed by over fourteen lawyers, law firms and individuals, the very essence of which the Texas barratry statute was designed to prevent,” the 389 plaintiffs allege in an amended petition in Nguyen v. Cracken, filed in the 55th District Court in Harris County.

“This action is not only a lawsuit to recover statutory damages for civil barratry, but it is also meant as a deterrent,” the plaintiffs allege.

The civil barratry allegations are in the third-amended petition in a 2016 lawsuit a fisherwoman filed against Bob Hilliard and his firm, Hilliard Munoz Gonzales of Corpus Christi, and John Cracken and his firm, The Cracken Law Firm of Dallas, alleging they stole names and identities of Vietnamese-American fisherman living in the Gulf Coast as part of a plan to gain more than $2 billion in payments from BP Exploration & Production after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

Houston plaintiffs’ lawyer Lance Kassab, who recently joined plaintiffs’ attorney Tammy Tran on the lawsuit, said they “completely revamped” the petition by adding the civil barratry allegations to the third amended petition, along with hundreds of plaintiffs and more lawyer and law firm defendants, and dropping the original causes of action of misappropriation of identity.

Defendants in the third amended petition include Hilliard and his firm; Cracken and his firm; Watts and his firms, Watts Guerra, Watts Guerra Craft, and Mikal C. Watts P.C.; Francisco “Frank” Guerra IV, a capital partner in Watts Guerra; and John Hunter Craft, a solo in Houston who was a partner in Watts’ firm when it was Watts Guerra Craft. Others are Mikal Watts’ brother David, a nonlawyer and Max Duncan and Duncan Litigation Investments of Kerrville.

In the new petition, filed on Sept. 2, the plaintiffs allege the defendants developed a “conspiracy constituting an illegal barratry scheme wherein they illegally paid runners over $10 million to personally solicit and identify over 44,000 Vietnamese-Americans to submit claims in the BP litigation, demanding from BP over two billion dollars in damages.”

They bring causes of civil barratry and civil conspiracy and aiding and abetting to commit a felony against the defendants.

Watts and Guerra did not immediately return telephone messages left at their firm. Cracken and Hilliard also did not immediately respond to phone messages seeking comment.

In an email, Craft wrote that he was not involved in the BP docket when at Watts Guerra Craft. He also said it was “telling in and of itself” that neither the government nor the defense asked him to testify during Watts’ criminal trial.

He added that he has been named as a “venue defendant” because he practices in Harris County.

“If plaintiffs continue to name me in their frivolous action, I look forward to defending myself, will seek immediate relief through a dispositive motion process, and will seek costs and sanctions,” Craft wrote.

Duncan did not answer a phone call at the address listed in the petition. San Antonio lawyer Michael McCrum, who represented David Watts in the criminal trial, did not immediately return a telephone message.

The plaintiffs note in the petition that “specific factual allegations” in the third-amended petition come from the Sept. 15, 2015, indictment filed against Watts, exhibits to the indictment and other public information. Watts defended himself pro se.

‘Ghosts in the Wind’

As alleged in the third-amended petition, Watts met with and “employed” two case runners around May 2010 to “improperly solicit clients” and entered into a joint venture with Cracken and Hilliard and their firms to “aid and assist the joint-venture by financing the barratry operations.” The plaintiffs allege that Duncan, who is not a lawyer, and his company helped move money from lawyers to the case runners.

They allege the defendants planned to “purchase” 40,000 clients for $10 million, which comes out to $250 each.

“In exchange for the money, these runners agreed to solicit clients and provided to David [Watts], who then provided to the other defendants, the identities, social security numbers and dates of birth of what became approximately 44,510 Vietnamese-Americans, some of which are plaintiffs herein,” the plaintiffs allege.

The plaintiffs assert that they were unaware their information would be used by defendants to file claims against BP or in connection with multi-district litigation over the accident.

The plaintiffs allege it eventually “became clear” to defendants that they did not actually represent the clients, with Cracken stating in an email to Watts that “clearly the 40k clients are ghosts in the wind,” but the defendants nevertheless filed more than 40,000 claims in the MDL around April 2011. Later, around Jan. 16, 2013, Watts and Hilliard submitted to BP about 44,004 presentment forms seeking more than $2 billion on behalf of the “ghost” clients.

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